Monthly Archives: November 2009

Goy’s teeth and sensual daydreams

So, after a Thanksgiving week spent in suburban squalor, I am back at Carleton to act as the Cinema & Media Studies office assistant for three weeks. Mostly, this involves receiving mail, filing applications, and inventorying movies for 6 hours a day. [Note: Ashley suggests I wear “sensible, yet stylish heels and a pencil skirt” for my secretarial duties; if anyone wants to go back to 1959 and fetch those for me, I’d be more than willing to oblige.] Plus, I have to make my own food for once in my life. Eek! My computer was tragically damaged on the way down here so now the monitor’s pretty brutally fucked up, but I will blog on nonetheless in an attempt to remedy my absence.

So first of all: I had a number of fun cinematic experiences in the past week. Most of them involved me being cuddled up next to my DVD player watching great movies like The Wind (1928) or Brief Encounter (1945), but two actually required me to visit a theater and pay for a ticket. The first of these was the Coen Bros.’ latest film, A Serious Man, which I’m still trying to puzzle out. Are the filmmakers sadistic or sympathetic? Does their universe contain even the slightest glimmer of hope?

I won’t spoil anything since Ashley hasn’t seen the movie yet (and is pissed about it), but A Serious Man is basically about Larry Gopnick, a Jewish physics professor living with his family (a wife, son, and daughter, each dysfunctional in their own way) in late-’60s suburban Minnesota. At first everything seems superficially fine, but then everything pretty much starts going to hell, all at once. The Coens are no strangers to tormented Minnesotans – see William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, fielding viciously bureaucratic phone calls just like Larry does throughout A Serious Man. The big differences here are the personal and religious elements.

While Fargo was based on a true story of violence and local color that never really happened, A Serious Man is steeped in a milieu that did happen, to the Coens themselves – i.e., growing up Jewish in St. Louis Park in the ’60s. (Worth noting that Joel and Ethan would’ve been about 13 and 10 respectively when the film takes place.) In this regard, I think you could view A Serious Man as akin to Woody Allen’s Radio Days or Spike Lee’s Crooklyn; the director’s fondly (or in this case, brutally) nostalgic return to childhood roots.

Then there’s the Jewishness, which stretches into every corner of the film, glazed over with a layer of Coen quirkiness, whether we’re talking about the prologue’s beautiful recreation of shtetl life or the kafkaesque visits to increasingly unhelpful rabbis who mark the film’s progress. Woody Allen’s protagonists just crack wise about perceived anti-Semitism; a Coens protagonist has a deeply disturbing yet oddly funny nightmare about it. (OK, maybe Allen does too, if you count the monks-with-crosses dream from Bananas…) Similarly, one of the best parts of the film is probably the story of the Goy’s Teeth, simply because it’s so weird, so very Jewish, and manages to sum up film’s major themes in a few short, bewildering minutes.

I don’t think enough time has passed yet for me to determine where this film stands in the Coens’ filmography, let alone in film altogether. But I do think it’s a great direction for them to go in – we’ve got the same dark oddball humor as The Big Lebowski, only toned down to match the film’s evocations of a real time and place in its colors and characters. For example, instead of a hair-trigger Vietnam vet, we get a slightly autistic brother with a sebaceous cyst. The one aspect that’s been ramped up is the torturous ambiguity of the ending: if you’ve seen Barton Fink or No Country for Old Men, you know what to expect, only count on more.

This film has been frequently described as the Coens’ retelling of the story of Job. I’d go one step further and apply it to the whole Old Testament. Larry Gopnick wanders around the desert, falls to his knees, asks, “Why me, lord? Why me?” What answer does he get? You’ll have to see the movie to find (and even then, good luck), but let me say that familiarity with the poetry of Stephen Crane couldn’t hurt. Also, special kudos to Fred Melamed, who plays Sy Ableman. At least in my eyes, he’ll probably be 2009’s Best Supporting Actor.

The other, possibly even more amazing, film-related experience of the weekend was seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Minneapolis’s Uptown Theater on Saturday night. I love pondering the Rocky Horror phenomenon – why should this weird, gleefully perverted ’70s rock musical-cum-tribute to Poverty Row B movies be so wildly popular among nerdily obsessive audiences who treat it like the Second Coming of Halloween? Or did I just answer my own question? (Note: I am myself a member of said nerdily obsessive audience, as is Ashley.)

If you’re not familiar with the cult of Rocky Horror, you can familiarize yourself at rockyhorror.org; basically, fans will dress up as characters (Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter is understandably a favorite), reenact the movie while it plays on-screen (which the talented troupe Transvestite Soup did last Saturday), shout at the characters on-screen (e.g., calling Brad an asshole every time he introduces himself), and throw things! (Rice, toilet paper, playing cards…) That’s the gist of it.

Better yet? It’s lots of fun! Granted, many people do it with more than a little chemical alteration, but I’ve seen the play and movie sober, and enjoyed myself greatly. I think a lot of it has to do with the breaking down of barriers, the cutting loose of inhibitions encouraged by both the film and its surrounding cult. For example, “virgins” are required to make a twisted Pledge of Allegiance which concludes,

…and to the decadance for which it stands,
One movie, under Richard O’Brien,
With sensual daydreams and erotic nightmares for all!

These sentiments – in praise of decadents, tolerance, and freely exploring fantasies – are echoed in Transvestite Soup‘s mission statement:

…to all other freaks, punks, Goths, Christians, pagans, gays, straights, misc., hippies, normals, whatever you are,
that here shall be a place where fun and humor rule supreme…

I think this is part of Rocky Horror‘s beauty, and maybe why so many flock to it – that is, so many of the people who’d be going to a midnight movie anyway. I mean, wasn’t the original cult/midnight movie Freaks, a similarly bizarre movie all about rejecting normality while embracing deformity and weirdness in all their forms? At least until its (very perplexing) finale, this is what Rocky Horror proclaims, too, through the desire-driven character of Frank-N-Furter, who sings, “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure!” as he and the other cast members swim orgiastically, draped in soaking lingerie.

So this, at least to me, is a large part of the appeal: it’s freedom, it’s acceptance, it really is Halloween all over again. In his It’s a Bird – a semiautobiographical meditation on Superman in graphic novel form, much of which deals with Superman’s relationship to the Other – Steven Seagle tells about an unpopular kid who dresses as Superman for Halloween. All of a sudden, he’s popular for a day. So naturally he decides to dress as Superman the next day. He’s promptly picked on and told to change his clothes.

I think the connection to Rocky Horror should be pretty clear: that theater is a self-contained world where no one will ever tell you to change your clothes (unless they’re being “a bitch,” as Carleton’s production of  the stage musical put it). It’s also a world without homophobia, or transphobia, or heteronormative discrimination of any kind – because what’s cooler than being a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transsylvania, at least while you’re watching Tim Curry sashay up and down that carpet? And what’s wrong with being at least a little – if not a lot – attracted to him, or the other fishnet-clad men (or women, or those who aren’t quite sure!) around you?

This is why I think Rocky Horror is more than just some goofy little ritual, and why so many people take it so seriously (which, at the same time, means taking it very lightly): it’s not just a case of another “so bad it’s good” movie you can get some laughs out of. It’s a campy, sequined, madness-drenched romp with a new motto advocating sexual exploration at every turn. And if you can get all that with a live, enthusiastic audience doing the Time Warp in the aisles – what more can you ask for? God bless Lili St. Cyr, and God bless Richard O’Brien.

W

ith sensuous daydreams and erotic nightmares for all!

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Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

I fucking love Mary Roach. Seriously, I love her. You know all those scientific things that you were always curious about but then, when you actually got to that subject in science you were so fucking bored that you couldn’t even follow what was going on? Mary Roach approaches science in fun way. She is just as clueless as the rest of us when first approaching her subjects and asking her questions. And ask she does.  The summer after I graduated, my former drama/modern fiction teacher handed me a copy of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers along with a bunch of other stuff she was getting rid of in preparation for her move to England. And it sat on my shelf for near a year until one night, bored with nothing else to read, I picked it up and read the back of it. Holy fuck, why had I not read this yet? So, after that and then Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (which I read this past summer), it really was only logical that the next subject Mary would tackle was sex. Sex and death go hand in hand after all.

I was very eager to finally get my hands on this book; I love learning about sex and the human body. And with Mary Roach as my guide I knew that not only would I learn but it’d be funny as hell. The main question at hand is why? Why do our sex drives work the way they do? Why do women’s clits and vaginas and men’s penises and sperm work the way they do? What of female ejaculate and all the other things we don’t understand? What exactly is an orgasm and why do we have them? How the hell can studying animal sex help humans? And so on. We know surprisingly little about these things despite the fact that sex is a huge part of most humans’ lives.

The book dives satisfyingly into the history of the scientific study of sex (albeit not very chronologically) and shows just how fucking hard it was and still is to try and study sex in a strangely sex-phobic society. And by looking at the studies and experiments conducted by forerunners like Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson you can make connections between the impact their ideas had on the public and trends (past and current) in thought about sex; especially ideas and thoughts that have led to so many women thinking that there is something altogether wrong with their body and the way it works.

But there is not just an emphasis on female genitalia and sexuality; this is a very well-rounded book. If you’ve ever wondered what exactly causes erectile dysfunction, you’ll find the answers here. Sort of. And you’ll also learn that in Middle Ages impotence was blamed on witchcraft (like everything else) and then later on masturbation (…like everything else) and that in late-sixteenth and seventeenth century France it was a downright crime to be impotent (literally).

At the core of the book is this: it is very, very difficult to study human beings sexually in a scientific setting. Science and sex are both delicate things and no normal human being is going to act the way they normally do while doing the down and dirty if they’re being watched, probed, evaluated, hooked to machines, and so on. The progress of sex research has been a long, colorful, arduous one and it’s history and current state are, as the title suggests, a curious thing indeed.

If you are interested in sex and the human body and how it works sexually and the strange history of sex scientifically, read this book. Sex toy lovers will see familiar names pop up here and there; like mentions of Cal Exotics and the Eroscillator 2 Plus. Overall, it’s a great read, informative without boring you to tears. Get it.

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Following up: Jack Chick and PSAs

So, tomorrow my winter break begins. I’ll be in Mound (aka suburban hell) for a week, then back here to work as an office assistant for the Cinema & Media Studies department. Exciting! And just before I leave, I want to write a short post following up on some topics I’ve delved into recently, namely Jack Chick’s The Gay Blade and public service announcements.

So, speaking of Chick, I glanced around WordPress and learned that there are, in fact, several whole blogs devoted to analyzing/attacking his work. These include “Our Lady’s Blog: Why is Mary Crying?,” which mainly goes after Chick’s anti-Catholicism, as well as “Investigating Jack T. Chick,” which I consider a worthy cause. Chick’s reclusiveness, coupled with his wackiness, really makes him prime material for wondering, “Who is he really, anyway?”

Like me, “Investigating Jack T. Chick” saw fit to tear apart The Gay Blade; however, they did it more from a Christian, scriptural point of view, observing how Chick’s claims don’t even stick to actual Christian beliefs – and, for all his obsession with biblical fidelity, Chick doesn’t even really quote the Bible correctly (inserting, unsurprisingly, extra homophobia). I don’t agree with the entire article, but multiple points of view on evangelical comic book craziness are always better; also, they link to this great little humorous take on The Gay Blade. My favorite part: “In the drawing here, we can be sure that these men are not gay! NOBODY IS WEARING BIG TINTED GLASSES!”

So, if anyone out there is, in fact, interested in my perspectives on Jack Chick’s viewpoints and artistry, I’m sure there will be plenty more to come. And so, about PSAs: Ashley and I recently watched the Nostalgia Critic’s “Top 11 Drug PSAs,” and it got us thinking about all the exaggerations and insinuations that branches of the U.S. government tried to shove down our throats alongside mid-afternoon cartoons back in the 1990s. For a sample, we turned to the Nostalgia Critic’s source, and looked at Retrojunk.com’s list of ’90s PSAs.

This is by no means a comprehensive catalogue, but it’s a start, and I’d love to explore the content and storytelling of these ads in the future. Some are just surreal and disorienting; others are patronizing and laughable; and yet others are starkly nightmarish. I’d also like to learn more about how they came to be written and filmed – who determined which ideologies they’d be expressing? PSAs are especially interesting to me because they’re like a covert intrusion into children’s culture: amidst all the hyperkinetic cartoons and commercials for toys or sugary cereal, we’ve got these little government-sanctioned voices going, “Don’t do drugs!” or “Exercise!” in all kinds of creative, often unexpected ways.

I’ll probably post more on PSAs another time (I just have the oddest obsessions, don’t I?), but for now, here’s one of my favorites among those we uncovered. It’s not from the ’90s – rather, it was released in 1969 – but it’s so catchy and upbeat. It sounds like the kind of song they’d play in ’70s movies when they wanted to evoke the ’30s. It speaks to a younger, more innocent time in our nation’s history. A time when we all had VD.

That’s right! Kids practicing violin! Librarians, pregnant women, butchers! Ballerinas, old businessmen, babies, joggers! They all have VD! The PSA is one of the few art forms that could turn venereal disease into a loving ballad. The message is definitely a good one, and one which carries over to the present (even if the term “VD,” sadly, does not): e.g., not just gay men and junkies get AIDS. But the way it’s being communicated – it’s so whimsical, so fancy free, just makes you want to dance while carrying a parasol!

So that’s my two bits for the day, digging up some more information about my strange, strange hobbies. Finally, a little note: tonight, Ashley embroiled herself in what we might as well call Squirtgate. Basically, a sex blogger called the Kinky Jew posted this “sarcastic humorous post” about why female ejaculation is “EW.” It’s kind of bullshit. And commenters were not happy, and Ashley was one of them. Definitely go read it for yourself. And now I bid adieu to blogging from Northfield for the next week.

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My Favorite Movies: Sherlock Jr.

When I first learned about Sherlock Jr. (1924, viewable here), my expectations weren’t that high. I knew little about Buster Keaton, and still wondered how anyone could challenge Chaplin’s mastery of silent pathos and comedy. (Little did I know then that Keaton and Chaplin aren’t comparable so much in form or content, but in the levels of innovation they brought to their work.) The idea of a projectionist entering into a film seemed appealing enough, but nothing too radical. Then I finally saw the film, let it stew around my head, saw it again, and again, and realized that it’s a work of concentrated comic perfection.

I grant that Sherlock Jr. doesn’t quite have the well-developed, back-and-forth narrative of The General, which sustains Keaton’s audacious acrobatics for longer and to greater purpose, but I still feel it’s probably the best showcase for his talents. Buster Keaton’s trademark stunts put every other example of choreographed mayhem to shame; they’re comparable to Busby Berkeley’s dance routines of the ’30s in their uniqueness, surreal logic, and aestheticization of human physicality, but they substitute hilarity for eroticism. And nowhere in Keaton’s body of work are they crammed together as effectively and syllogistically as in Sherlock Jr., where the entire film unfolds like the best-constructed line of dominoes in film history.

The plot’s pretty simple: Keaton plays his usual nameless, stolid sad sack character, trying to win a girl’s love. He works as a projectionist, but aspires to be a detective (hence the title). However, through a series of unfortuitous clues, his scuzzy rival frames him for the theft of a watch, and he retires to the projection booth, defeated. While the girl discovers his innocence, he daydreams himself into the film-within-a-film, and a parallel secondary story takes place. Eventually he awakes, and finds the girl has realized her mistake, leading to one of Keaton’s great, ironic happy endings.

Within this framework, Keaton unleashes his bottomless bag of tricks – bottomless because his resources are the physical laws of the universe. Anyone can take a fall, but Keaton takes falls that defy our beliefs and expectations. He also roots his physical comedy in a romantic plot filled with its own pitfalls, whether they’re jokes at the expense of his protagonist, the girl, her idle rich father, or the rival, who’s depicted as a mustache-twirling cad.

I view the romances in Keaton’s films as somewhat cynical, as flat and unsentimental as the look on his face. In this film, for example, the girl seems willing to be bought off with fancy gifts, and a similar love-for-sale ethic pervades his earlier film Three Ages, which sees competition for mates – and the subsequent mating – as a constant of human nature. Maybe an argument could be made that the romantic urges of his protagonists are as obligatory as their obedience to gravity; after all, romances are omnipresent in his films, but they’re never really dwelled upon for their own sakes. It’s one more curious aspect of his filmography that shows how different he was, and how much he enjoyed sticking a little satirical thorn into the side of formula.

But really, the subtly offbeat romance is just the springboard off which Keaton launches all kinds of verbal, visual, and situational humor: his attempt to scrounge up a few dollars in the movie theater’s rubbish pile, and later his investigation into the watch’s disappearance, when his ultraliteral interpretation of a guidebook’s injunction to “Shadow your man closely” leads to a sequence of prolonged absurdity. This scene, in which Keaton tails his rival very closely, lets him toy with our perception of film, and question whether they’re seeing it in two or three dimensions. (He returns to this trick with even greater effect during the film’s climactic chase.) It also justifies some of his beloved train-based physical comedy (again, see The General).

This segment constitutes a good demonstration of Keaton’s prowess at staging and executing barely believable chains of cause and effect, yet in reality, it’s just a precursor to the meat of the film, which takes place in its protagonist’s imagination. As he projects himself into a stereotypical Perils of Pauline-esque silent melodrama, Keaton engages in some meta-cinematic playfulness; it doesn’t really have a spot in the film’s narrative, but it’s so cleverly staged that it ceases to matter. It rewrites the film’s ground rules: henceforth, this is not a normal comedy. Things will work the way Buster wants them to.

The protagonist takes up his place as “the crime-crushing criminologist – SHERLOCK JR.,” idealizing himself as suave and authoritative, effortlessly outsmarting a villainous pair of pearl thieves. After a pool game that riffs on the very concept of suspense, the film cuts to the next morning, and the remainder is pretty much one long, brilliant, loving exercise in concrete physics. This is the substance of Buster’s greatness, whether we’re talking about this film, or his other masterpieces like The General or Cops: his ability as a filmmaker to construct ridiculous master plans that would make Rube Goldberg balk, and then as an actor to endure them without flinching.

Watching the last third of Sherlock Jr. is both totally enjoyable on visceral and intellectual levels: you’re overwhelmed both by what you see happening, and by any attempt to fully process it, leading inevitably to the question, “How did he do that?” Ashley and I (and anyone else we’ve asked about it) are still completely baffled by a scene in which Keaton appears to leap through his assistant, into a wall. Sources suggest it’s accomplished via something called a “vampire trap” (from its use in a play version of Polidori’s The Vampire), but this doesn’t explain anything.

Kubrick once said that “if it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed”; I’m not sure where Buster Keaton falls on that spectrum. I’m not sure whether his art is closer to trompe l’oeil painting, or to poetry, or to architecture. He’s a beautiful anomaly. The chase scene in Sherlock Jr. seems to espouse a belief in overarching fate, in Newtonian determinism, in the happy conjunction of man’s actions and the physical laws. In the amusement of the gods, to whom we are “like flies to wanton boys,” as Shakespeare’s Gloucester would put it.

I’m not sure which of these viewpoints Keaton would actually agree with, but some blind faith must be in his unexpressive face as he careens along on the handlebars of a motorcycle without a driver – some willingness to leap before he looks. He injured himself countless times, risked life and limb, put himself in severe physical jeopardy in order to produce visual art with the power to make us laugh. To me, that’s saintly – putting yourself on the chopping block to benefit the rest of humanity.

When I watch the climax to Sherlock Jr., my mind keeps coming back to geometry: the circles, the lines, the angles that come together so flawlessly to yield these movements, where Buster is just one little piece in a huge, dynamic system. His influence has been felt everywhere in physical comedy (perhaps most resonantly in Roadrunner and Coyote), but never equaled. He just had his peerless skill, precision, and the bravura necessary to pull it all off. I’ve seen Sherlock Jr. several times (after all, it’s less than an hour long), and I hope to see it many, many more. With its ageless humor, tightly-packed inventiveness, and near-perfect execution, Sherlock Jr. is one of my favorite movies.

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Gay rights and the world of Jack Chick

This term is at last coming to an end, which means I will definitely now have more time for blogging. The only problem is that while my time is plentiful, my ideas are not. So at least in the immediate future, I’m grasping at straws as to what I should write about. You may point out the obvious solution and say, You’ve gone so long without blogging; why start now? Why does it matter? And I’d be hard-pressed to give you a convincing answer. But I think the salient part is that I must write as long as I have two hands and ten or so fingers in front of me, and that’s what I’m doing!

I have some vague desires, blog-wise: I want to write, for example, about visual arts (fim, comics, painting), sexuality, social norms, something along these lines. Yesterday, while conducting some desultory online searches, I found this abominable website, Defend the Family, which is basically nothing more or less than a hate site. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to websites so full of hate – I think it’s the same, unquenchable curiosity that drives a lot of people who investigate and write about radicals, maniacs, terrorists, cultists, and what have you. It’s this desire to find out just what drives these deranged, misguided passions.

What can lead someone to throw their life away on totally futile, objectively worthless pursuits, whether it involves hurting others, hurting themselves, or just harmlessly wasting time and money? They’re definitely relevant, important questions, since they speak to the darker sides of human nature, how easily people can be drawn into supporting malicious plots that cause unspeakable horror. (Nazi Germany is a tragic object lesson is this willingness to follow and believe no matter what the price.)

So it’s a desire to answer these questions – to figure out how and why people can do and think these things – that leads me to the atrocious, horrifying white supremacist website Stormfront (trigger warning of all kinds) and to, again, Defend the Family. Which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t really have anything to do with defending anyone’s family; a more appropriate name for the site would be “Persecute the Gay.” The question here is really, What isn’t wrong with this website? A banner ad along the side hawks books like Redeeming the Rainbow and The Pink Swastika, which the website claims to be “a thoroughly researched, eminently readable, demolition of the “gay” myth, symbolized by the pink triangle, that the Nazis were anti-homosexual.” I am not making this up. Somebody actually wrote this book, and this website is selling it at $16.95 a copy. The other side of the page has a big, bright, apparently family-friendy image:

Because it turns out that sunsets, smiles, beaches, and holding hands are to gays like garlic to vampires. Who knew? For you see, in a world where homosexuality is legal and publicly accepted, men and women won’t be able to embrace each other – brides won’t be able to wear veils! – children will be forbidden from sitting next to each other. Is that the kind of world you want to raise children in (except you won’t have children because the gays will illegalize it)?! Dear lord, how terrible.

You may notice that I revert to sarcasm a lot when dealing with this kind of idiocy. Possibly explanations may be that 1) I’m a pretty sarcastic person in the first place, or maybe 2) it’s so frustrating and ridiculous it’s hard to encounter with a straight face. And yes, I know that sexual identity isn’t the same thing as race or gender, but still, I’m so tempted to imagine. What if this were, say, the 1860s, the 1910s, the 1960s, or some other era when America/the world is poised on the brink of increased equality? Could you imagine a reactionary website from back then with an image like that?

A storm is coming. Do you want teachers telling your kids that black kids are just as good as they are?

If you don’t want to be obligated to acknowledge the equality of others, that’s too bad for you. It does not mean that everyone around you should be bent to your will. Yesterday I read a blurb on this inane website mentioning something called the “Riga Declaration.” It goes like this:

Whereas freedom of religion has been protected in human rights law from antiquity, including the Charter of Human Rights of King Cyrus the Great in 539 BC, the British Magna Carta in 1215 AD, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 and the American Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution in 1789…

[blah, blah, blah]

Whereas natural law recognizes a natural order in sexual and family matters…

[more bullshit]

Therefore, relying upon more than 4000 years of legal precedent and the moral and religious principles we share with the vast majority of the citizens of the world,

We Declare that the human rights of religious and moral people to protect family values is far superior to any claimed human right of those who practice homosexuality and other sexual deviance, and

We Call for the European Union and the international community to immediately abandon any campaign to create a human right for homosexual conduct, and to restore religious freedom and family values to their proper superior status.

Now, for one thing, this so-called “Declaration” isn’t actually anything real or significant in any way. Still, it’s pretty upsetting that some people think it is, or that it’s saying anything legitimate or intelligent. So what’s it really saying (not very coherently)? “We have a religion so your rights don’t matter.” This whole line of thinking is so obviously contradictory to the whole way democracy works; it’s impossible to reconcile wanting to live in a free society with wanting to deprive a group of their rights on such a shoddy basis – i.e., because we don’t like them.

And you know what’s even more sad about this? These claims and “declarations” and bullshit are all illogical and pointless, yet they hold sway over national law. (Just think about what happened in Maine a few weeks ago.) Recently, together with my school’s Gender and Sexuality Center and Cinema & Media Studies department, I helped out (very slightly) in bringing award-winning filmmaker Johnny Symons to campus, along with two of his films.

Daddy & Papa (2002) was very cute, based largely on Symons’ own experiences raising children and those of his friends; Ask Not (2008) was inspiring in its account of youth activism against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and thoughtfully presented numerous counterarguments – from data, from experience, etc. – against the failed policy. I highly recommend watching these movies if you can track them down.

In the end, people like these fuckers for “Defend the Family” are simply on the wrong side of history. Freedom of religion is very important. But so are other freedoms, and there’s no good reason why anyone’s prejudices should cause others to be penalized for private, consensual behavior. (Reality check: Lawrence v. Texas struck down anti-sodomy laws as unconstitutional in 2003.) Within a few decades (at most), I dearly hope that gay marriage will be legal in all 50 states, and this whole absurd debate will be a thing of the past. Till then, I suppose, it’s just a matter of keeping the activism going full force, and not getting discouraged.

(Before I continue: I saw this great website listed on a poster in a high school a few days ago; I plan to glance over it in more detail, because I think this is a fantastic idea. As long as homosexuality is equated with negative attributes on schoolyards across the nation, there is not tolerance. Besides, thinking b4 you speak is just a good idea in general, whether you’re going to spout homophobic shit or not.)

And so, along these lines, I thought I might continue my ongoing investigation into the life and work of Jack T. Chick. The last time I wrote about Chick, I received this very pleasant surprise; if you haven’t watched the documentary yet (it’s very short and informative), I highly recommend you do that now. Chick is endlessly appealing, yet endlessly repugnant, and it’s not unexpected that his stance on homosexuality follows this trend.

Being the wacky fundamentalist he is, Chick has consistently addressed “the gay agenda” in his tracts, using the same overblown, puritanical fury he uses for everything from Halloween to not preaching exactly the right type of Christianity. His most direct take on homosexuality was 1984’s The Gay Blade, where he proved that not only was he behind the times, but that he viewed gay culture with all the accuracy and understanding of a 16th century Spaniard documenting the West Indies. Which is to say, typical Jack Chick. I think I’ll spend the remainder of this post analyzing The Gay Blade; his other two tracts primarily on homosexuality, Doom Town and Birds and the Bees, are similar in structure and content. (Wounded Children is, sadly, hard to find online, but it’s a demented classic.)

So The Gay Blade begins with a scene that you’d think would be out of some futuristic nightmare, but no! It is, in fact (I guess), a current event: a man marrying a man. Chick dismisses the fact that same-sex marriage was recognized nowhere in the U.S. in 1984, and pretends that men getting married to each other, and then rushing into waiting vehicles framed against indistinct gray backgrounds, is the greatest threat to Christendom since whatever else has made mothers cover their children’s eyes while thinking, “Gulp!”

(Incidentally, I think Chick’s tendency of making his characters think onomatopoetic words instead of say them, like normal people do, is one of his most hilarious artistic quirks – he’s consistent about it, too!)

After expressing anxiety about guys with big hair holding hands, Chick puts the issue out there: “THE GAY REVOLUTION IS UNDERWAY. To most people, it’s a big joke… but is it really?” This is pretty symptomatic of Chick’s indecisiveness: he can’t quite pick whether gays are hated now and should keep being hated, or if they’ve got the full support of our sinful society and the government behind them. He flip-flops repeatedly over the next few panels.

Note the proud lesbian – apparently being leered at by guys with crooked heads? – wearing her requisite shiny black dyke uniform. So what is it, Jack? Are homosexuals “in a display of defiance against society… suffer[ing] the agony of rejection, the despair of unsatisfied longing – desiring – endless lusting” (yes, it really says that)? Or are they basically in control, as page 6 would indicate? He seems to want it both ways. They’re oppressed (good), but they’re oppressing (bad). If you’re confused… welcome to Chickworld.

The scene then changes, as Chick takes on a trip into the past, to the last time gays were given free reign to be their bad gay selves: SODOM. We see some valiant archaeologists uncovering millennia-old carvings and immediately covering their faces. One of them cries, “Good Lord, I can’t believe my eyes, we can’t publish this. It’s filthy!” The discovery of this ancient gay porn lets Chick segue into one of his usual long Bible stories, one he’d later recount in far more graphic detail in Doom Town. Lot lives in Sodom, gets visited by angels, the Sodomites get pissed, demand that he send the angels out “that we might know them (sexually),” and in the end, everyone dies.

Chick underpins this section, which is not all that artistically interesting, with a lot of Bible citations (Genesis 19:10, Genesis 19:11, Genesis 19:24, etc., etc.) and bullshit archaeological evidence. Then, mercifully, we return to the present day, where “new laws” are encouraging gays to take the offensive by grabbing people’s arms and refusing to let go, while simultaneously resisting Christ’s power. It also leads into one of my very favorite pages from this tract.

Is it just me, or did Chick somehow make his condemnation of the gay lifestyle unintentionally sexy? I’ve heard of unintentionally funny before, but – I mean, look at her, an attractive young lesbian, defying the idiocy of the very comic she’s in! Sure, she’s got a confusingly-worded biblical passage beneath her, but your eyes wander away from “…did change the natural use…” and you start thinking, Wow! She cannot change, and she doesn’t want to! I’m convinced. Gay lifestyle it is.

After this page, the tract mentions some old canards – gay men die young because they’re violent and get AIDS (and remember, it’s just because they’re gay men, has nothing to do with centuries of systematic oppression) – quotes some more paragraph-long Bible verses, and kind of gives up and goes home. “Homosexuality is one of many sins,” explains the second-to-last page. “There are also murder, lying, adultery, drunkenness, etc.” A scathing indictment of homosexuality, to be sure: It’s in the same ballpark as murder, lying, and stuff.

So what can we learn from Jack Chick’s outdated rampage of silliness and illogic? I see it as a glance into this madly homophobic thought process that helps drive shit like what happened in California and Maine. Men holding hands are different. They’re icky. They’re the Other, and we – being good normal straight white Christians – just don’t like ’em. Besides, they’re all proud and angry and God hates them and eww, they sleep with others of the same sex.

Ultimately, what evidence does Chick really have other than pages of gay caricatures far removed from reality, and reams of vague, randomly-applied Bible quotes? His main line of argument amounts to “Gays scare me, and that makes them bad.” Unfortunately, this isn’t limited to one crazy-but-massively-influential cartoonist. If you glance over some of these help-defend-marriage websites, as I sadly have, or even just look at the one I linked to above, that’s their argument. “My religion says gay people are bad. So take away their rights.”

It’s a pretty depressing viewpoint to think about. Hatred is all over the place. Thankfully, the tide is turning, and equality is going to win the day. We just have to keep fighting, keep arguing against this hateful bullshit, and soon the day will come when kids will call each other “gay” about as often as they call each other “straight.”

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Complaints about the Watchmen movie and gender roles

So, I haven’t blogged in forever, but at last the term’s winding down, and my workload is (slowly, slightly) dissipating. Soon winter break will be here and I’ll have little better to do than spout out thoughts onto the Internet. In any case, I’ve got some random thoughts clotting up my brain: movies I’ve been watching lately, good & bad. Gender roles and perceptions. Feminism, activism, and privilege. Where to start? My ideas aren’t really in any kind of especially useful or coherent form. But I’ll see what I can do.

[Watchmen SPOILERS!]

First of all: the Watchmen movie. I wanted this to be good. I honestly, sincerely wanted to see Watchmen and enjoy it, and say, “Well, that was a worthy adaptation.” Alas, that was not to be. I know everybody went over all of this months ago, but I just now caught up with the film, so I’m going to speak my piece: I love Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I read it for the first time when I was a senior in high school. Its merits (and its influences) are endless. With Dave Gibbons’ impressive artistry and Moore’s blow-you-the-fuck-away writing, which veers between the trenchantly political, satirical, personal, and epic, it’s an ambitious, mature work of art that changed both how readers thought about superheroes, and how comics writers wrote about them.

But praising Watchmen is like bringing coals to Newcastle – it’s been declared the greatest graphic novel of all time, and so far, that claim seems at least as legitimate as calling it “the Citizen Kane of comics” (just try searching that phrase and see what comes up). My point is, I’ve loved the book for a while, loved how it lures you into its dystopian yet recognizable world and gives you pathetic has-beens to identify with (Dan and the insulated Laurie), loved its intelligently crafted images from the snow blindness of Karnak to the majesty of Jon’s Martian solitude, and loved how they all came together to form a brilliant and imaginative end result.

Then I saw the movie.

Yes, it’s faithful, but only to the letter of the original, not to the spirit. A real Watchmen adaptation (IMHO – after all, who am I?) would have acknowledged that comics are a different medium than film, so the techniques that worked so well in one just wouldn’t translate to the other. Similarly, we read comics in a different way than we watch movies. In comics, you can page back and forth, reconnecting subplots, noticing subtle visual clues, and resolving suspicions. Moore & Gibbons used this to their advantage time and time again. In a movie theater, though, you can’t slow down the pace at which you’re taking in information – it’s going to be constantly hitting you at 24 fps – and you can’t ask the projectionist to rewind to a earlier reel because you want to check something. (Maybe Watchmen can be an object lesson in medium specificity.)

Dr. Manhattan in Alan Moore's Watchmen

What this amounts to is that 1) while in the book, we could extract all the detail out of Gibbons’ art by lingering over each panel, we don’t have time for that in the movie, especially when so much jumbled, hyperkinetic action is being thrown at us and 2) the complex, interweaving strands of narrative and character development are reduced to chaotic attempts to give each character his due. Robert Altman could dart back in forth between sets of characters and do each one justice, showing the audience how they all intersect and what that means. (See Nashville, Short Cuts, or Gosford Park.) Zack Snyder just can’t. So what ended up happening?

The viewer’s assaulted with chunks of pages ripped from the book, with no chance to appreciate any of their nuances. We get one flashback, then another, then another, with a little bit of the present day thrown in for good measure. What was a fully-developed world full of unhappy, relatable people becomes a competing mix of garbled ideas, some carried out well, others not. The massive background of Watchmen, apparently tossed in as one of many efforts to please fans, instead becomes a contextless distraction. Who’s Dollar Bill? Who’s Hooded Justice? Snyder might as well have tacked a note to those scenes saying, “If you can’t tell what’s going on, go read the book, then come back.” This is by no means a stand-alone project; instead, it’s like a parasitic twin sprouting out of the Watchmen legacy.

So what the film’s unflinching “faithfulness” to the book means, in the end, is that it’s a rushed, 3-hour attempt to tell a huge story. And to paraphrase Citizen Kane‘s Bernstein, “It’s no trick to [tell a huge story], if all you want to do is [tell a huge story].” Well, OK, it is something of a trick, but my point is that Snyder doesn’t tell the story well or interestingly or in a way that adds anything to the body of cinema; he just tells it. Sure, every plot point is filled in, but they’re done perfunctorily. In the book, the ending is cathartic and daunting – with Dan and Laurie still together, two people in a shattered, confused world, and the New Frontiersman potentially about to change all that.

Dr. Manhattan in Zack Snyder's Watchmen

Having felt for these two and been involved in their lives over the preceding hundreds of pages, I could sympathize with the crises they’d faced and the uneasy point at which they’d arrived. In the movie, however, I just didn’t care about Laurie. Maybe it was fucking Malin Åkerman. Or maybe it was the way she was squeezed into all of these emotionally loaded situations – her mom popping up briefly at the beginning and end to reminisce, Dr. Manhattan with his making-you-remember-things superpower (where did that come from?) to let her know that the Comedian is her father. All the right words and pictures are there, but none of the feeling.

I’ll keep my minor complaints to a minimum: for example, why did the masked heroes call themselves “the Watchmen”? I’m not a purist who insists every detail in the book must be in the movie, but there was a reason for the group in the book to be called the Minutemen instead. The title derives from a Juvenal quote, graffiti’d on walls periodically throughout book and film, “Who watches the watchmen?”, an explicit questioning of the pre-Keene Act team’s power and lack of oversight. If the team calls itself the Watchmen, that takes away the whole critical aspect of the title, and reduces it to a simple descriptor. Of course, as Ashley pointed out, if they’d called the team the Minutemen, audiences would’ve been confused and upset, so it’s probably all for the best.

Other minor complaints: the soundtrack, dear lord. Hey, who wants another montage, action scene, or random transition set to the best of classic rock? “99 Luftballoons” appeared for about a minute as Dan and Laurie went to dinner together. You’re just left guessing what not-really-that-appropriate song they’ll turn to next. And finally, this isn’t really minor, but I can’t imagine enjoying this movie if you don’t enjoy stylized violence. All the time. Like blood splattering places for no real reason. Bones cracking in slow-motion. People being exploded by Dr. Manhattan, a lot, and having their guts stick to the ceiling. It’s not a party if no one’s being exploded.

The wrong Manhattan

So that’s my take on the Watchmen movie, and as you can imagine, I’m kinda sick of talking about it. Was it insufferably bad? Not really. Was it good? Eh. Jackie Earle Haley made for a suitably grungy, psychotic Rorschach. The general visual aesthetic worked well enough. But on the whole, especially in comparison to the book, no. Pretty much the only correct response to the existence of the film Watchmen is to go read the book. In cinematic form, it has all of its energy, emotion, and political inquiry sucked out, replaced with interminable blood-letting and tedious plot re-enactments, until you practically want to blow up New York yourself just to get it over with. (Another minor complaint: the changed ending also sucks, and it lacks the curiosity-piquing build-up of the book.) I may be a little tardy in reviewing this, but it doesn’t really matter. Maybe someday they (this mysterious “they”) will take the same route as with the 2003 Hulk, and reboot it all entirely. But given the legal quagmire this adaptation got stuck in, I doubt we’ll be seeing a brand new one any time soon.

One piece of Watchmen I did enjoy, though, was something lifted from another movie: the use of Philip Glass’s “Pruitt-Igoe” among other pieces from Koyaanisqatsi. The main effect, though, was to make me think, I want to go listen to some Philip Glass music, without Zack Snyder’s involvement. Listening to Glass makes me wish I knew anything about music. He’s called a minimalist, which makes sense to me – his compositions are often repetitive and cyclical, but beautifully so. When Godfrey Reggio approached him to score Koyaanisqatsi, he originally said he didn’t do film scores. Thank God he reconsidered, because what resulted was one of the greatest feature-length mergers of image and sound in film history. Since the film is entirely without dialogue (or narrative), the music speaks for it in a similarly universal language.

From what I’ve learned about him and heard of his music, Philip Glass is just cool. I first heard his name in connection to a new score he composed for the 1931 Dracula – I mean, how much more awesome do you get? He’s based symphonies on David Bowie albums. His score for Mishima, despite being totally un-Japanese, somehow fits Paul Schrader’s depiction of the author’s dark visions and imperial dreams. With Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, his music aurally illustrated the historical implications of Robert S. McNamara’s life. I can’t imagine a Glass score ever being a liability; I would (and have) watch a movie just to hear one. Out of all the classical musicians in the world today, I’m skeptical that any are as plainly awesome as Glass. Need proof?

That’s right, Glass composed music for Sesame Street. He’s just all over the place. And I salute his extreme versatility, ingenuity, and the great pleasure of his music. So, that done, I think I’ll take the time I have left at work to switch to a very different vein: talking gender roles, as I often do. Today in my often thought-provoking (and always very easy) Psychology of Gender class, we were watching clips of John Gray (of Men are from Mars fame) and Dave Chapelle talking about the differences between men and women. To put it directly, bullshit. In addition, fuck that. To make matters worse, last night Ashley and I were looking at a disturbing “trending topic” on Twitter: #arealwife. To give some random, unpleasant examples:

“sticks by her man thru thick or thin, rich or poor, her friends all hate him or not….”

“runs the family but acts and lets everyone think like her man is really running shit!”

“will give u a massage after a long day at work n will cook ur fave meal…. tell u she loves u n kiss u”

“will feed u, please u, need u, and always be right there for u”

Here’s what’s (obviously) wrong with this situation: these statuses are advocating deeply regressive gender roles that negatively affect both men and women. They’re claiming that “a real wife” should be subservient, sycophantic, hard-working, and sincerely caring all the time, subordinating herself to her almighty husband regardless of his behavior. It’s just a big, tiresome, worthless set of lies that people feel strangely compelled to fulfill. They’re similar to the lies we were discussing in class today: all women are [adjective], while all men are [adjective]; men and women apparently can’t talk to each other, but must do a formulaic dance in every relationship, struggling to reconcile they’re absolute goals (generally this means sex for men, and some combination of wealth, family, and commitment for women). Love, it would seem, has nothing to do with it.

And naturally feminism is very problematic, because it upsets all these supposedly universal desires of men and women. After all, if women expect to be treated like human beings, how are men supposed to degrade them and coerce them into sex? And if the men can’t do that, how are the women supposed to latch onto them for security and start producing babies? Why, feminism is just a wrench in the circle of life! It frustrates assumed life roles, it messes up how people of different sexes are supposed to relate (and really, without these schemata, how can men and women even talk to each other?), it just makes everything impossible!

That’s some extensive sarcasm, of course. I’d like to discuss this more, but I have some business to attend to for the rest of the evening. My point is that this #arealwife shit is just kind of saddening. Everyone should feel like they’re a worthy human being on their own, with no need for the validation of a set-in-stone relationship. Men and women are more similar than they are different, dammit. I feel like this should be obvious, but for some reason it’s just easier to perceive the world and relationships through the lens of oversimplifying roles. Hopefully people can gradually come to realize what confining, damaging bullshit all of this is – hell, I feel insulted when I’m told “men only want sex!” – and all of society can continue changing. I mean, we’ve made some progress in the past century. But so much of it lingers. The battle’s never over.

Moral of the story? Watchmen movie and gender roles bad; Watchmen book, Philip Glass, and liberation good.

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Best films of the 2000s: a premature list

While I have this lovely little interlude called “working on Friday night” and am able to post blogs, I think I’ll touch on a topic that’s been discussed heavily as of late in the Carleton film community (OK, amidst me and 3-4 other people). See, this is late 2009, which means that 2010 and a brand new decade are just around the corner. And us human beings (and film lovers) being such 10-centric creatures, we like to divide up history by which decade it lands in. So the point I’m coming to is this: it’s time to determine, roughly, the “best movies of the decade.” In other terms, that means figuring out which films released between 2000-2009 were highest in quality, contributed most to the sum of our culture, were the most transcendent works of art. Etc.

Here’s the hitch, though: I am a poor college student. Also, earlier in this decade, I was about 12. This means I have by no means seen all, or even most, of this decade’s good or great films. This may well disqualify me from making any sort of list or judgment, but so be it. I do not put myself forth as the ultimate arbiter of that which is beautiful; maybe when somebody ponies up the cash for me to see every movie that comes out, then I’ll declare myself arbiter. Till then, this will have to do. I’ve pretty much just glanced over lists of movies from this time period and picked out a few particularly good ones I’ve seen. Trying to make such selections, especially with films that may yet make a difference historically, is full of its own special hazards, but this is my own little, minimum-effort attempt at it. I’ve assembled 10+ movies, in no real order, because fuck that. Enjoy!

Timecode (2000). It’s a perverse, complex experiment from Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis: four cameras, shooting continuously for an hour and a half, mapping out the quadrants of a story set in a small Hollywood production company. It may seem gimmicky to some, distracting and confusing to others, but it really worked for me, and as with most of the movies to be listed here, I desperately need to see it again. (Oh, but for an extra day without responsibilities.) If the technical and logistic innovation required weren’t enough, it’s also dramatically solid – the actors (an ensemble including Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgård, and Julian Sands) aren’t just window dressing, but provide a four-paneled window into a set of confused people striving for romantic and professional success. It’s a challenging film (the four soundtracks, for example, are carefully mixed to emphasize some pieces of dialogue at the expense of others), but also very worthwhile.

Adaptation. (2002). Charlie Kaufman: mindbending screenwriter/auteur of our times. I still haven’t seen Synecdoche, New York, which has received mixed reviews (and has been included on some similar lists), but I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also probably one of the best-of-the-decade. Adaptation., though… despite a general, well-earned antipathy toward Nicolas Cage (he was in the Wicker Man remake, 2 National Treasure movies, etc.; don’t pity him), he pulls off being one of Kaufman’s nervous, sweaty men just as well as John Cusack did in Being John Malkovich – and in this case, said sweaty man is Charlie Kaufman himself, or a fictionalized version thereof, full of humorous neuroses and foibles, as well as a healthy, also-fictionalized sibling rivalry. Then he starts adapting an unadaptable book by Meryl Streep who’s really Susan Orleans who wrote the book Adaptation. is adapted from… and the typical Kaufman craziness begins (this is a movie engineered to make you repeat “Kaufman” many, many times). As with Timecode, the gimmick – in this case, metafiction to the extreme – works, and every Kaufman, fictional or otherwise, gives some insight into the creative process, with alligators. Chris Cooper is great, too.

Cage/Kaufman/Kaufman is shattered in Adaptation.

Mooladé (2004). Note to self: watch more African cinema. Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène showed why with this powerful, engrossing film about the ritual of female genital mutilation in western Africa, and a fearless woman who wants to put a stop to it. I wrote about the film in more detail shortly after I first saw it, and I have no reservations about putting it on this list. It simultaneously takes on clashes between old and new, Africa and Europe, women and the patriarchy, being political and good-spirited at the same time. It’s a beautiful film that shows you what’s happening and why it’s wrong, while balancing a number of colorful village characters and day-to-day events. And its matriarchal heroine, Colle Ardo Gallo Sy, is one you won’t forget soon. I hope to keep my eyes further open for the next decade of African film.

La Pianiste (2001). Again, I begin this listing with a single name: Michael Haneke. You can love him or you can hate him. If you’re fond of pleasurable cinematic experiences and not so fond of abrasive, agonizing art films, it’s more likely to be the latter. (I could say the same of a lot of people, I suppose. Lars von Trier and Antichrist, from what I’ve heard, probably count.) My experience with Haneke is pretty limited (this and his original Funny Games), but he’s a creative force to be reckoned with as the century marches on – hell, he won the Palme d’Or for The White Ribbon, as I learned earlier. La Pianiste, or The Piano Teacher, is driven largely by one performance: that of the also to-be-reckoned-with Isabelle Huppert, here a freckly, receding woman full of intelligence, Freudian conflict, and self-loathing. She teaches piano; she experiments with forbidden sexuality; she does some very, very bad things involving glass. Through Huppert’s actions, Haneke sticks his dagger into bourgeois sickness and twists it, hard.

Brick (2006). It was made cheaply by a first-time director, Rian Johnson, who edited it on his personal computer. The tale of a loner moving through dark circles attempting to solve the murder of a loved one wasn’t new, but the story’s milieu – a suburban California high school – was. Three years later, the novelty’s worn off, but the tag of film-noir-set-in-high-school doesn’t really do it justice. Johnson creates a new, identifiable world out of ones that more or less existed before, whether in our miserable adolescences or on Warner Bros. back lots in the 1940s. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the stoic Brendan, investigating his girlfriend’s death, and undeterred by the crowd of teenage thugs leaping at him (often literally) out of the woodwork. The rest of the cast is filled in by archetypes-made-flesh, from the Pin, a kid with a cane who could’ve been George Macready, to Tug (Mike Mazurki?), former flame Kara (maybe Gloria Grahame?), and Laura, the femme fatale. It’s visually engaging, fast-moving without being rushed, and with staccato dialogue right out of Sweet Smell of Success to match. Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom unfortunately made little impact when it was released earlier this year, but his career’s still full of potential, and I’m excited to see what else he produces from Brick‘s promise.

A dead hand lies in the water in Rian Johnson's Brick

The Saddest Music in the World (2003). This is another film I’ve covered in depth on this blog, and an admittedly very idiosyncratic choice. Like Rian Johnson, Canada’s resident mad scientist Guy Maddin plunders cinematic history for inspiration, but unlike anyone else, he transmutes classical Hollywood gold into his own brand of very strange gold (that’s an alchemy metaphor that didn’t quite work out). Co-writer George Toles fills in the dark non sequiturs, stars like Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rossellini turn the words into viable conversation, and Maddin provides an overarching vision of Depression-era Winnipeg, all expressionistic set design and splintered editing, like that perfected in his The Heart of the World. There’s sad music, fake folklore, and allusions aplenty to Maddin’s ’20s-’30s forebears, all wrapped together in a melodramatically absurdist package. (This has also been quite a decade for Maddin’s countryman David Cronenberg; I haven’t seen A History of Violence, but Eastern Promises was an international gangster film that carried over many thematic elements from his horror films.)

Let the Right One In (2008). In an age when vampires are most associated with a sparkly, vapid teen idol called “RPazz,” it was sheer relief to see this intense, crystalline horror film travel across the Atlantic, like the plague-infested cargo of some Swedish Nosferatu. It doesn’t focus exclusively on the bloody truth of vampirism, nor does it take the accursed SMeyer path of reducing its monster to a glamorous mannequin entangled in a love for the ages. Instead, its protagonists are a quiet 12-year-old boy living in a typical, snowy Swedish town, and a quiet, slightly older vampire girl who wants to be his friend. Background characters are normal, sometimes drunken adults and selfish schoolchildren who go about their own lives. Like another recent Swedish masterpiece, You, the Living (2007), these are pale, average people; only in this case, one of them happens to hungrily scarf up blood every chance she gets. It’s a somber film about a connection between two lonely kids, punctuated by scenes of ferocious violence. And it’s certainly in a class of its own.

Spirited Away (2001). Hayao Miyazaki is probably the most consistent positive force in animation over the past 20-30 years. I haven’t yet seen Ponyo, but Miyazaki just looks unstoppable: imagine, making Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away back to back! The more I think about it, the more Spirited Away – or properly Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi – looks like one of the greatest accomplishments thus far in animation history. It has as much potency as any one of the Magic Kingdom’s properties, whether you go with Snow White, Fantasia, or Beauty and the Beast. It’s a Japanese film, but it’s absolutely universal. It speaks in terms of friendship, nature, and kindness, as many of Miyazaki’s films do, rather than national or cultural boundaries. It’s endlessly rewatchable, and appealing to any age group with its detailed settings and playful artistic sensibilities.

A young girl experiences new worlds in Spirited Away

Gushing about Spirited Away aside (OK, it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the decade’s best films), there are some other animation highlights to point out. Also in 2001, Richard Linklater directed the rotoscoped Waking Life, a smörgåsbord of philosophical and sociocultural rumination, as the narrative itself digresses from idea to idea, and from character to character – as if in a dream, or in a Linklater movie (see 1991’s Slacker). In 2003, French animator Sylvain Chomet produced the oddball, Tati-influenced Les Triplettes de Belleville, an endlessly inventive, primarily visual story of a resilient old woman rescuing her bicyclist grandson from enigmatic gangsters.

And sure, there was Pixar, but fuck Pixar. Finding Nemo was full of prefab sentiment, The Incredibles was tolerable, and WALL-E was certainly more impressive than either, but Pixar inevitably leaves me dissatisfied – maybe it’s their world of glossy-eyed underdogs, or maybe the fact that they’re constantly trying to produce a milestone as big as Toy Story. In any case, I prefer films like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a faithful adaptation of her graphic memoir of the same name. The film is as beautifully illustrated as the novel (I feel like more comics should be adapted that way), with the added pleasure of hearing Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux voicing Marjane’s mother and grandmother, respectively. Beside that, it’s damned poignant and politically relevant. Persepolis is the kind of animated adaptation I want to see more of in the 2010s.

The Dark Knight (2008). Yes, it was overhyped. If you were around in the summer of ’08, you were probably being asked “y so srs?” It was also the most profitable movie of the ’00s. And, by and large, it was good. Christopher Nolan stayed true to his gritty, naturalistic self. The film has several climaxes, a number of high-adrenaline set pieces, but doesn’t get bogged down in them; Bruce Wayne and Morgan Freeman brave a number of ethical dilemmas, but it’s never self-righteous; and Harvey Dent goes more than a little crazy (and deformed), but it feels natural. The single reason for the film’s greatness, what prevents it from being just another Batman movie (and Christ, we do not need another of those), is exactly what everyone’s said the reason is: the late Heath Ledger. Because his Joker is a character who so defies straight, Manichaean action, who laughs at the notion of ethics, and to whom crazy is just as good as sane. Basically, saying that Dark Knight is one of the great films of the 2000s is saying that Heath Ledger gave one of the great performances of the 2000s. He did, and it really makes the movie work, and it’s a really enjoyable movie.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight: grimy, smarmy, and anarchically comical

No Country for Old Men (2007). It’s the Coen Brothers. They’ve done, they did it, and they’re still doing it. No Country is set in a bleak world where a little greed can lead to a lot of mayhem, Treasure of the Sierra Madre style, except now a cattle gun is involved. [Worth noting: doesn’t this show how appropriate it was for the Coens to adapt Cormac McCarthy? Bleak and violent… Blood Simple? Blood Meridian? I rest my case.] As with The Dark Knight, a villain ties it all together, but it’d be inane to lump the Joker together with Anton Chigurh. He’s taciturn, undefeatable, and more fiercely deterministic with his coin-flipping than Two-Face. It’s one big game of cat and mouse across Texas, with interlopers trying to get their own fistfuls of would-be hero Llewellyn Moss’s dollars, but to quote The Third Man, “they can’t stay the course like a professional.” And always in the background is Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff musing about the film’s goings-on and the transitory nature of life. Granted, the Coens’ vision is dark and pretty male-centered, but it’s also a diverting, thoughtful yarn set against the expertly filmed heat of the Southwest.

So, it’s almost 4 am, and that’s all I have at the moment; other movies I didn’t have time for include Mulholland Drive (2001), Hable con ella (2002), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). As for 2009, from what I’ve seen, Coraline and Inglourious Basterds both look like they might turn out to be important films. But that’s the problem with declaring movies the “best of” something. Historical perspective might just come around and bite you in the ass, and next thing you know, you’re the guy who said How Green Was My Valley was undoubtedly better than Citizen Kane. Maybe someday I’ll be a real critic, and somebody’ll pay me to write one of these lists. For now, though, it’s all off my own dime, and it’s all for love of the art form. Here’s to the 2000s, and here’s hoping that another 10 years of great movies is right around the corner (and that the Mayans don’t cut it off 2 years in).

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