If you buy what some Democratic pulse-takers are saying, the election is closer than it seems because the historical record is that the vast majority of undecided voters have always gone for the challenger at the last minute. I’d like to believe this, but with an apparent majority of red-staters still preferring Bush in every poll except the most recent New York Times and Zogby surveys, my gut is giving me that old sinking feeling again. I also suspect that TV news media types believe it’s in their interest to push the scenario that it’s still a neck-and-neck race…even if the bottom-line indications suggest otherwise. Very dispiriting.
There was an early-bird press screening of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Touchstone, 12.25) last Monday evening (10.18), and one reasonably discerning guy who attended says he “loved it….I was laughing hysterically…it was a real rush…my heart and mind were completely in synch over it.” This from a guy, F.Y.I., who liked Anderson’s first three films — Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums — but didn’t quite love them.
In her role as Tea Leoni’s mother in James L. Brooks’ Spanglish (Columbia, 12.17), Cloris Leachman has all the great hilarious-obnoxious lines, I’m hearing, and generally knocks it out of the park. “She has all the classic Brooks lines…lines that turn in on themselves,” this guy is saying. “You know, like ‘sometimes having low self-esteem just shows good sense’?” I guess this means Leachman could be one of the five Best Supporting Actress contenders, as mothers with sharp tongues always seem to strike a special chord with people. And to think…Jane Fonda wanted this role for her big comeback vehicle, and she auditioned for it, but Brooks felt she wasn’t right for it. And now Leachman has nailed her best role since The Last Picture Show.
Nothing further on Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s political sympathies needs to be said, but here’s New York Times critic Tony Scott riffing on them anyway: “A number of commentators have discerned a pronounced conservative streak amid the anarchy of South Park, a hypothesis that Team America to some extent confirms. Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and other left-leaning movie stars are eviscerated (quite literally — also decapitated, set on fire and eaten by house cats), while right-wing media figures escape derision altogether. It seems likely that [Stone and Parker’s] emphases and omissions reflect a particular point of view.”
A reader named Mark Zeigler says he’s having doubts about my enthusiasm for Sideways (Fox Searchlight, 10.22) because Salon critic Charles Taylor has mostly panned it and called its director-cowriter, Alexander Payne, “a pretentious wiseass.” First, it’s okay for Taylor to trash Sideways. He’s going to feel pretty lonely with that viewpoint, but fine. But second, Zeigler may want to consider what New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has said about the criticism that Payne treats his characters with condescension, which she calls “a puzzling assessment.” She adds that “it’s hard to understand the genesis of this discomfort” except to note that “like Sideways, Payne’s films cut close to the emotional bone and even movie critics can get squirmy when the screen turns into a mirror.” She adds that “since the late 1970’s we have been under the spell of the blockbuster imperative, with its infallible heroes and comic-book morality, a spell that independent film has done little to break. In this light, the emergence of Mr. Payne into the front ranks of American filmmakers isn’t just cause for celebration; it’s a reason for hope.”
Howard Stern said yesterday morning (Friday, 10.15) that Chris Rock’s hosting of the Oscars Awards will be a “disaster.” What he really meant to predict is that Rock will fizzle like David Letterman did. Funny and brilliant as Rock may be, Stern feels he’s too much of an irreverent grenade-tosser to be a hit with the Academy crowd, which takes the Oscars half-seriously and wants more respect and affection from Oscar emcees than Rock is willing or able to provide. I think Stern is wrong, and that Rock will be hilarious — he always is — and that people recognize the Oscar show needs a jolt every now and then. Academy producers were right to finally give the emcee slot to a GenXer — it might pull in younger viewers.
Figuring the specific reason iNDEMAND decided to bail on airing “The Michael Moore Pre-Election Special” will be an interesting pursuit. The company, owned by Time Warner, Cox and Comcast cable companies, announced Friday it wouldn’t be showing “The Michael Moore Pre-Election Special” due to “legitimate business and legal concerns,” which is apparently a euphemism for political pressure. Moore has stated that he and iNDEMAND signed a contract to air the special (which would have included a showing of Fahrenheit 9/11) in early September, and that he believes that pressure from “top Republican people” caused the turnaround. Moore is considering taking legal action against the company, he said. An iNDEMAND spokesperson said any legal action Moore might take against the company would be “entirely baseless and groundless.”
The arrival of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers on a Criterion DVD last Tuesday is one of the most fascinating historical echo events in a long time.
A nearly 40 year-old account of guerilla warfare waged by the Algerian Liberation Front against French colonialists on native soil in the late 1950s, Pontecorvo’s astonishing film is a primer on what U.S. forces are grappling with now in Iraq.
If the movie itself doesn’t make this clear, there’s a 25 minute featurette on the DVD’s third disc that spells it out further. Former anti-terrorism official Richard Clarke, the tough-minded guy who accused the Bushies of bungling the war on terror in his book “Against All Enemies,” discusses the echoes with former State Department expert on counter-terrorism Michael Sheehan and ABC News investigator Christopher Isham.
The parallels aren’t just close, they’re spooky.
Political currents are everywhere this weekend. The election is less than three weeks off, the last Presidential debate happened two nights ago, the bullshit levels are peaking and the bombings in Iraq are happening non-stop. And now there are two big political movies awaiting your attention — Pontecorvo’s and Team America: World Police, an undeniably hilarious comedy that’s essentially a conservative message piece disguised as a satire of Jerry Bruckheimer-type action films.
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The Battle of Algiers would obviously be the cooler thing to watch (it’s totally cooks as a melodramatic thriller), but this is Amurrica, dude…
Shot in 1965 and released two years later, The Battle of Algiers is a fairly even-handed, ultra-realistic account of what was happening in 1957 Algeria. It initially focuses on the recruiting of a young street criminal named Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) by the F.L.N. But as the canvas becomes broader and more painted with observation, the revolution itself becomes the story.
Algiers was scripted and staged with a story, characters, fake explosions and all the rest. But it feels as authentic as the funkiest down-and-dirty documentary ever made…seemingly loose and random, like something caught on the fly.
And it’s not a one-sided account. Pontecorvo is obviously partial to the rebels, but he doesn’t overly romanticize them and he also shows respect for their French opponent- oppressors. The film ends with the rebels suffering a defeat and losing tactical ground, although the French gave up and let Algeria have its independence in 1962.
Algiers basically shows the hellish extremes that dedicated men in such a conflict will resort to when push comes to shove. Bombings, torture, assassinations….nothing is too malicious if the plan is to weaken your opponent’s spirit by any means necessary. Human life is a commodity to be erased at will. And woe to the combatants and their sense of 24/7 hell.
“Five people were killed today when two separate explosions were set off inside the heavily-controlled Green Zone in central Baghdad,” the New York Times reported yesterday (10.14).
“Three Americans were among the dead,” the story went on. “The first blast was set off by a suicide bomber near a cafe. The second occurred in or near a bazaar, or market area, a spokesman for the First Cavalry Division, Maj. Philip J. Smith, said by telephone from Baghdad. It was unclear whether that blast also involved a suicide bomber.”
“The Green Zone is home to the the United States military, the interim Iraqi government and a number of embassies. But it is also home to `thousands of Iraqis,’ Major Smith said.”
U.S. forces in Iraq may not see themselves as the bad guys, and the Iraqi snipers picking off soldiers and blowing up civilians aren’t the good guys…but the whole situation is starting to feel like a lose-lose. We started out as the good guys, but now we’re the black hats — the cultural oppressors who don’t belong, who will leave sooner or later (but probably not for years)…the inspiration for a whole new generation of terrorists.
Admit it — deep down we all know or strongly suspect that the seeds for the next 9.11 are being sewn right now in Iraq.
Criterion’s Battle of Algiers DVD is on the pricey side, but it’s a three-disc set with seven documentaries, so it’s not like they’re ripping you off.
The film itself, shot in black and white, isn’t supposed to look dynamic and sparkling — that’s not the idea — but it looks better than the last time I saw Algiers at the Bleecker Street Cinema 20-odd years ago.
There’s an excellent, too-short testimonial doc on disc two called “Five Directors.” It’s basically Oliver Stone, Steven Soderbergh, Mira Nair, Spike Lee and Julian Schnabel talking about their respect for Pontecorvo’s film, how innovative it was for its time, how relatively recent films (like Soderbergh’s Traffic) have followed its example, and so on. I just wish it could have gone on for an hour or so.
Has a movie or more precisely a DVD ever gotten into your dreams and resuscitated an old nightmare?
This happened to me last weekend after watching James Marsh’s Wisconsin Death Trip, which came out on DVD last Feburary. It’s an adaptation of Michael Lesy’s cult book about an ugly-vibe plague that descended upon the Wisconsin town on Black River Falls in the 1890s. Economic depression and a diphtheria epidemic brought about all kinds of horrors — murders, insanity, infant deaths, etc.
Marsh does a decent job of bringing the book to life (so to speak), although I didn’t like the re-enacted footage as much as the old photographs.
A day or so after watching it, I had a nightmare about something that happened to me in Wisconsin when I was just out of high school. It’s funny how memories from long ago suddenly return and tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey.”
The scariest thing about this nightmare wasn’t the fact that myself and two friends came close to dying in a car crash that almost happened…but didn’t. The fact that this happened isn’t so bad. I can live with that.
The freaky part was re-living that godawful horrifying feeling as I waited for the car we were in — a 1958 Chevrolet Impala convertible — to either flip over or slam into a tree or hit another car like a torpedo, since we were sliding sideways down the road at 70 or 80 mph.
It happened just outside Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. A classmate named Bill Butler was driving, another named Mike Dwyer was riding shotgun, and I was in the back seat. It was 1 am or so, and we were coming from a beer joint called the Brat Hut. We’d all had several pitchers of beer and were fairly stinko.
We were five or six miles out of town and heading south towards Markesan, where we had jobs (plus room and board) at the Del Monte Bean and Pea plant. To either side of us were flat, wide-open fields and country darkness.
Butler, a bit of an asshole back then, was going faster and faster. I looked at the speedometer and saw he was doing 90, 95, 100. I was about to say something when the road started to curve to the right, and then a lot more. Butler was driving way too fast to handle it and I was sure we were fucked, especially with nobody wearing seat belts and the top down and all.
But thanks to those magnificent Chevrolet engineers, Butler’s Impala didn’t roll over two or three times or slam into a tree or whatever. It just spun out from the rear and slid sideways about 200 feet or so. Sideways! I remember hitting the back seat in panic and looking up at the stars and hearing the sound of screeching tires and saying to myself, “You’re dead.”
The three of us just sat there after the car came to a halt. There was a huge cloud of burnt-rubber smoke hanging above and behind us. I remember somebody finally saying “wow.” (Dwyer, I think.) My heart began beating again after a few seconds.
I don’t remember saying much to Butler or Dwyer after the near-accident that night, but I sure feel like saying something now.
I realize I’m a little late getting in touch with my emotions, but if Butler is reading this (he’s alive and well and living somewhere near Redding, Connecticut), I want him to know I’m really furious about this. Butler almost took away my becoming a journalist and loving my kids and going to Europe and everything else, and all because he had some idiotic anger issues and tended to dare-devil it after the ninth or tenth beer.
I don’t know why this is hitting me now, but it is. And it’s not just because I watched Wisconsin Death Trip. That was just the doorway.
Maybe some 17 year-old kid with issues similar to Butler’s will read this and think twice the next time he’s out with friends and starting to tromp on the gas.
MoveOn.org is pushing those great Errol Morris spots with Republican and independent voters venting their Bush frustrations. I ran this a few weeks ago, but here’s the link again: www.moveonpac.org/donate/switchad_winners.html.
Please pass this email on to any swing voters you happen to know. They’re really great spots — brilliant, really. MoveOn.org is trying to raise money to get them on television over the next couple of weeks, and you know the rest.
Sex, Death and House Flies
I wrote the following article in ’97 for the L.A. Times Syndciate, and for some reason I have a special affection for it. And since I have to drive up to San Francisco this afternoon (Thursday, 10.14….trying to leave around 2:30 or 3 pm), I’d thought I’d post it just for fun:
Say what you will about Bliss, Lance Young’s film about love and sexuality — that housefly-on-the-fan shot is awesome.
Young marrieds Craig Sheffer and Sheryl Lee are lying in bed and mulling over their troubled sex life. Lee’s psychological history is at the nub. One of her problems is a bug phobia — she’s always scrubbing under the sink and hunting around for creepy-crawlies.
Anyway, the camera rises up from their bed, climbing higher and higher until it comes to an overhead propeller fan. And we suddenly notice a fly sitting on one of the blades.
How did Young get that little bugger to just sit there, waiting for his big moment?
Answer: he was too cold to move because his legs and wings had been numbed because he’d been put into a freezer for five minutes just before Young yelled “action!” Even if he’d been able to fly away he would’ve failed, due to a thread of tungsten wire — thinner than a human hair — tied to his midsection and holding him down.
The one who arranged all this was “fly wrangler” Anne Gordon, whose company, Annie’s Animal Actors, was hired by the Bliss shoot in Vancouver.
The Bliss fly is actually a flesh fly — the kind that feeds on meat, and is about two or three times larger than your average house fly. Gordon bought 100 to the set on shooting day but only used “about a dozen” to get the shot.
A different chilled fly was used per take, she says, because it would be cruel — not to mention impractical–for the same fly to be sent back to the freezer after each shot. The optimum time to shoot a chilled fly is four minutes after the ice chest, she says. They’re usually warmed up and able to fly around after seven minutes.
Another way to get a fly to sit still is to “cover him with a special mixture of milk and honey,” says Mark Dumas of the Vancouver-based Creative Animal Talent. “That way it’ll stay there a while and groom itself.”
The overhead ceiling fan shot was “tough,” says Gordon, and not just because of the fly-preparation issues. She says she felt a bit awkward looking down at a couple doing a love scene all day. “They’re down in the bed doing their thing and I’m up on the ladder,” she says. “They hardly had anything on.”
Of course, the main issue when it comes to bug actors isn’t sex but death — i.e., not getting killed during takes.
The fact that flies are small and pesky and murdered by the tens of thousands each day by humans the world over cuts no ice on movie sets. SPCA rules require that any visible insect used in any shot be treated with the same care afforded to any large animal.
Dorothy Sabey, a Vancouver-based humane officer for the SPCA who watches out for animal safety during shoots, understands the hard realities of insect life. She just wants them suspended during filming. No bugs have ever been harmed on her watch.
“I just have to make sure they can fly away,” she says. Or scamper away. Sabey recalls working on a TV movie that had a scene in which a shoe is seen stepping on a cockroach. Death was averted, she says, by hollowing out the shoe sole “so the cockroach was quite safe.”
It goes without saying that no Bliss flies were sprayed, swatted or flattened during production.
Their safety was matter of particular pride for Gordon. “We cannot kill a fly for any purpose if it’s being used in a shot,” she says. “This rule includes mosquitoes and maggots, even. I know maggots are really awful looking, but then again they’re baby flies.”
As Dorothy Sabey explains, “If any life form is in front of a camera, it’s an actor…and we don’t kill actors, do we?”
Yeah, but we do freeze them. As long as we’re going to get all extra-sensitive and p.c. about it, doesn’t this constitute some kind of cruelty? Would any filmmaker or animal wrangler ever consider putting a dog or a cat into a freezer to keep them still in front of a camera?
“It’s a gray area,” Sabey admits.
Even grayer is the SAPCA rule that after shooting the flies used by the wrangler have to be returned to the storage laboratory from which they’ve been brought.
Given the average fly’s lifespan of about 30 days, the decent thing would be to set them free after putting in a hard day on a soundstage. Instead it’s back to the lab and a convict-like confinement, killing time and just waiting for the end.
Sabey says she’s willing to forgive if a bug is accidentally killed. “If it happens anyway then it really is an `oops’ because everybody tries hard,” she says.
“Of course if somebody kills a fly around the block, that’s different.”
Matt and Trey vs. Liberals
“I don’t think that the celebrity big-mouths know how much political damage do when they publicly criticize the president. I am an average middle-age American who is very likely to vote for John Kerry. I have never before voted for a Republican presidential candidate.
“Are lefty celebrities so egotistical that they think they are actually going to convert Bush supporters to Kerry supporters? They are more likely to do the opposite. I don’t know if you realize this, because you may be so deeply entrenched in the Hollywood scene, but most people are turned off by this sort of celebrity rhetoric. I know I am. They almost make me want to vote for Bush.
“I am not saying that they are or are not well informed. What I am saying is I don’t like to hear what their opinion is regarding political issues. Entertain me. That’s what I want and is the reason I spend my money to see their movies, etc. So please, wake up. Get your head out of the, uhm…sand. Why don’t you write and tell them to just shut up and do their jobs? The people mentioned in your recent column about the new puppet movie are just a bunch of pompous liberal blowhards who need to keep their opinions to their selves. Or I might just change my mind and vote for…” — Thomas Cochrane .
Wells to Cochrane: Yeegods….don’t do it! I hear you, I hear you.
“You’re right on Team America. Some very funny stuff ridiculing the genre, but politically Parker and Stone have their heads up their asses. Their attacks on Hollywood liberals come from the same place as their apparently serious suggestion that `ignorant’ people should stay away from the polls.
“On one hand they attack actors for being ignorant, and on the other for `reading things in the newspaper and presenting them as our own opinions’ (or words to that effect).
“Tim Robbins especially can be awfully insufferable, but compared to an overtly
mendacious Presidental administration, a few mouthy, semi-informed celebs hardly seems like a problem worthy of frontal assault, especially in a movie that seems to find the Team Americans’ bellicosity (i.e. blowing up the EiffelTower and the Louvre to get to a few Arab terrorists) more endearing than upsetting.
“Stone and Parker have always styled themselves as equal-opportunity offenders, but there’s a nastiness to their attacks on famous left-wingers thatv is unrivaled by anything on the other side of the ledger. Michael Moore as a hot dog-waving suicide bomber? Unfair and, more importantly, unfunny. Maybe it’s ridiculous for people to take Sean Penn’s word on what’s happening in Baghdad, but it’s not Sean Penn’s fault that people report what he has to say.
“In a perfect world, Seymour Hersh would be a regular guest on Leno, but that’s not
American culture as we know it. Maybe Parker and Stone should take their own advice and keep mum on things they know nothing about.” — Sam Adams, Movies Editor, Philadelphia City Paper.
“Thank you so much for finally making it perfectly clear: Hollywood types who spout liberal dogma are enlightened icons who should be relied upon for all of our political knowledge. However, Hollywood types who seem to spout conservative views are idiots who are wrong and should be chastised! Why didn’t I see it!?
“Don’t you see that what you are saying in your column is exactly the type of pomposity that Parker and Stone are attacking in their movie? The problem with Hollywood liberals is that they think because they are famous we should care what they think, even worse, that their opinion is the ONLY viable one. That is why regular people, for the most part, wish Sean Penn and company would just shut the fuck up.
“It really frightens me that someone might ir vote for Kerry because Spicolli said them he da man.” — Chris
Wells to Chris: I didn’t say Hollywood liberals are the end-all and be-all. I essentially said the stated reason for Stone and Parker’s trashing them in Team America (i.e., because “they don’t know shit,” as one of them told the New York Post‘s Megan Lehmann) struck me as brusque and short-sighted and slanted.
How does a person acquire enough knowledge about the Bushies and the running of the Iraqi War these days to speak out about same, according to Stone and Parker? Penn went to Iraq before the war and looked around on his own, but they still think he’s an asshole. Moore, Robbins, Garafalo and the others have presumably read up on these topics from books, newspapers, academic authorities, etc. But they can’t speak out about these things because they’re ignorant and/or annoying, according to Parker and Stone.
Given these criteria, you’d think Matt and Trey would also trash 9/11 Republican Ron Silver, since he’s just another actor who probably gets his information from more or less the same sources that the liberal wankers rely on. But somehow I don’t think this will happen. Do you?
“I’ve heard Team America described as an equal-opportunity offender (I haven’t yet seen it), but is it really? I guess a case could be made that Parker-Stone are slamming Bush’s war-waging, but that seems kind of tenuous at best, and, from all I’ve read, the only real-life targets lampooned by Stone and Parker are the U.N. and liberal actors who speak out against the war. The latter seems particularly absurd, as these actors are artists just like Stone and Parker, and who’s to say that only certain artists should express their opinions?
“Artists have a long history of commenting on current events — take Picasso’s Guernica, for example. And it’s doubly ironic that Republicans criticize outspoken entertainers so much (‘no one cares what you have to say!’), but the party has elected far more entertainers into office than have Democrats — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan. I guess actors are only out-of-line when they’re Democrats, huh?” — Kyle Buchanan
“Do a search for ‘South Park Republicans’ and although you’ll find a lot of right-wingers overselling how close South Park is to their thinking, you’ll get a sense of the libertarian place that Parker and Stone are coming from.
“One of the things about youth is that it likes to rebel against whatever it perceives as the prevailing, and often suffocating, culture. In 1968 that meant the Establishment and Suburbia. But for at least a notable minority on college campuses today, the establishment, the prevailing culture is the leftist orthodoxy. It’s
middle-aged professors who hate America and capitalism but have never had a job that wasn’t with the state.
“It’s the victim culture that creates rules for sex which presume male guilt, and speech codes that allow leftists to suppress rightwing views on campus. And it’s the Democratic party rolling over for the RIAA and Jack Valenti (to get to
the issue that really matters– reproductive freedom for my iPod, man!)
“Maybe a lot of that’s exaggerated or simple-minded, but I’ll bet not everything the Yippies said about LBJ would stand up in a court of law either. The point is, if you believe that Saddam rather than Bush comes closest to being another Hitler, and that free-market capitalism and personal responsibility are better systems to live under than hypersensitive, politically correct nanny-statism, South Park has been your show and your way to laugh back at your profs and your extremely serious Chomsky-spouting dorm-mates for a long time.
“The only thing new about Team America is the puppets.” — Mike Gebert
“Love the new site and your ambition. Hope you’re getting some sleep.
“The letter from Kenya made me think that you should have a column alternating with Visitors. Call it Visitations or some such. Have your international readers describe their home towns and the Hollywood and local films that have been shot there.
Heck, get Nebraskans who want to comment on Alexander Payne’s movies–just no one from NY, LA, Toronto or Vancouver. If you archived them by continent, country and city, it would be a fun place to look up before taking a trip abroad.” — Jack Cheng, Boston, MA.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are clever filmmakers and inspired comedians, but I can’t help despising where they’re coming from politically in Team America: World Police (Paramount, 10.15), their R-rated puppet flick.
I’d love to fall in line with my journo friends and call them the cat’s meow in all respects, but man, I can’t. Matt and Trey are in league with the bad guys, or at the very least doing what they can to undermine the legitimate and (hello…?) insightful convictions of the anti-Bush lefties everywhere, so no offense but leaving aside the fact that they’re a couple of extremely funny dudes, they can both cram it sideways.
Let’s get the compliments out of the way first….
Matt and Trey really know how to sell a joke or a bit, and are clearly operating ahead of the curve. I was laughing pretty hard here and there when I saw Team America last weekend. It’s an appallingly funny film at times. It’s going to be a fairly big hit.
I never thought I’d find myself saying that a scene showing a drunken puppet repeatedly vomiting on a New York City sidewalk is a comic jewel, but Team America has such a scene and it’s a bona fide classic — right up there with the most celebrated comic bits of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Martin and Lewis.
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In fact, it’s the best funny-vomiting scene to happen in American cinema over the last 40 years. The last truly remarkable scene in this vein was included in Arthur Hiller’s The Americanization of Emily in 1964. (There’s not much to it — just a bit with a young sailor on a ship heading for Omaha Beach on D-Day throwing up into a steel-pot helmet. The sound he makes while doing this is amazing.)
But I’m also ticked off, dammit, about what roughly half of the political jokes in Team America are saying deep down.
And what is that? Basically that showbiz liberals are pompous jerks with broom handles up their ass. It also implies righties aren’t quite as bad because the film doesn’t criticize them, so maybe it’s okay to vote for Bush.
I should acknowledge that none of the journalists and critics I’ve spoken to are taking the political content of this film even half-seriously. “I don’t agree with you…they’re just funny guys,” a journalist friend told me last Sunday. So maybe I should back off, lighten up, grow a sense of humor?
Parker and Stone have been telling journos all along that Team America is a goof on Jerry Bruckheimer-type action movies. “People are saying that [the film is] about politics,” Stone told Washington Post columnist Anne Thompson. “It’s a satire of movies.”
That’s partly true, but it’s also a smokescreen thing to say. Never trust the artist — trust the tale.
Some of Team America‘s political humor is about how American military forces have acted like high-tech brutes in their fight against the terrorist baddies on foreign soil, and how their single-minded desire to be the world’s #1 tough hombre has pissed off millions in Europe and the Middle East.
There’s also a funny song about how Pearl Harbor sucks, but it came out four years ago. Why not trash Hudson Hawk and Last Action Hero while they’re at it?
The biggest percentage of the gags are about how all the big leftie Hollywood types — Tim Robbins, Janeane Garafalo, Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Matt Damon — are ignorant blowhards who give aid and comfort to America’s enemies.
The anti-American, fellow-traveller metaphor is conveyed in Team America when these leftie dickwads join forces with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Stone and Parker respond by making sure the dirty lefties get blown up, shot or incinerated to death, decapitated or thrown off tall balconies.
In a movie like Team America, there’s no such thing as just plain hah-hah funny. It’s all about the sub-currents, and the message here is that these liberal snobs aren’t worth listening to, and therefore everything they’ve said about Bush being wrong and arrogant on Iraq is probably suspect. You can throw ’em all out with the trash, the film says. Moore is a lunatic, Baldwin is deranged, Robbins’ complaints about Clear Channel are deluded, Garafalo’s rants on Air America radio are hot air, etc.
Stone told the New York Post‘s Megan Lehmann, “We diss on people like actors who get on a soapbox and say, ‘Let me tell you how it works in Iraq,’ cause they don’t know fucking shit.”
In other words, you can’t have a halfway legitimate opinion about Iraq if you’re a leftie actor, because all you really know is what you’ve read in newspapers, magazines, books and the internet…which isn’t good enough. You have to work for the government or a think tank, or better yet you need to go over to the Middle East and absorb what’s going on first-hand.
But not like what Sean Penn did when he went to Iraq because he’s one of those leftie wack-jobs. To really know what you’re talking about you have to join the military or be a U.S. Senator or work for the CIA or Halliburton.
Maybe Matt and Trey know something we don’t. Maybe Tim, Sean, Michael, Janeane, Alec and the rest of them really are clueless assholes. They probably know them a lot better than I do, so maybe I should shut up.
But I’ll bet Stone and Parker will never accuse actor Ron Silver, a “9/11 Republican” who’s been praising Bush’s record on the news channels, of not knowing what he’s talking about. And he’s just another SAG member getting his information from the same sources.
Could any of this have something to do with E Online‘s Emily Farache, who interviewed Stone and Parker in early ’01 over their Comedy Central series That’s My Bush!, and reported that “they’re both Republicans” and that they “don’t plan on ridiculing Bush” in their then-upcoming series?
“What we’re trying to do is way more subversive,” Parker told Farache. “We’re going to make you love this guy.”
Or a story by Brit Hume on the Fox News site that ran in December ’01, in which it was reported that Stone and Parker had announced at a People for the American Way fundraiser “that they were Republicans. `It’s true,’ said Parker, who was wearing a stars and stripes outfit.”
Some people have written in and said I’m taking their comments too literally, and that they might have been putting everyone on when they said they’re Republicans. As if.
In a just-posted interview with the Guardian‘s Heather Havrilesky, Parker summed up the film’s political philosophy. To understand his meaning, understand that “dicks” means law-enforcers or international cops (i.e., U.S. forces in Iraq) and “pussies” means Hollywood liberals. Here it is:
“Dicks are bad, and it sucks to be a dick, but it’s way worse to be an asshole, and because there are assholes, we need dicks. So shut the fuck up, all you pussies!”
I think all of us felt pretty sad about Chris Reeve’s death. Especially given his image as a kind of never-say-die spiritual hero.
There’s no question in my mind that his life as an impassioned quadraplegic and stem-cell-research advocate made a much greater impression than his performances ever did. I enjoyed his acting from time to time, but I was in awe of who he became after that tragic horse-jumping accident paralyzed him in ’95.
Reeve had a ten-year run (’78 to ’88) as a marquee name. Superman got him off the ground; Switching Channels finished him off. His best film performances were in Jeannot Szwarc’s Somewhere in Time (’80), Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap (’82) and James Ivory’s The Bostonians.
His best performance ever was in the Broadway stage production of Lanford Wilson’s The Fifth of July, in which he played a gay paraplegic Vietnam veteran. It ran in the late summer or fall of 1980. Jeff Daniels and Susie Kurtz co-starred.
I had an experience with Reeve in 1980, when I was a pup journalist living in New York. It began with an interview piece I wrote about him for a New Jersey weekly called The Aquarian, the main subject being Somewhere in Time.
Reeve and I met for the interview at a restaurant on upper Columbus Avenue. I had done my homework and prepared a lot of deep-focus questions, and I think he enjoyed our talk. Sonia Moskowitz, a gifted photographer whom I was seeing at the time, sat in for the interview and then took some photos of Reeve (plus one of him and me) outside the restaurant. Then we went back inside to sort out the bill.
I was a bit green back then, but I’d done a few celebrity interviews and knew that the basic rule was that the studio always picked up the tab. I assumed this would be the case but there was no Universal publicist at the restaurant to cover the check, and I didn’t know what to do because my Aquarian editor had never talked to me about expenses, and I didn’t have the cash to cover it on my own.
I thought Reeve (wealthy actor, right?) might step up to the plate and get his money back from Universal. It was that or somebody would have to leave a personal check or wash dishes. Talk about embarrassing. When I told Reeve I was a bit light I could see he was irritated. We kind of hemmed and hawed about it on the sidewalk, I offered everything I had (about $15 bucks), and he finally dug out his wallet and said, “Well, all right” and paid the balance.
When I wrote my piece I threw in a couple of graphs at the end about this bill-paying snafu. I thought it was both amusing and humanizing on some level that a successful big-name actor who’d played Superman was capable of getting flustered about paying a check, just like anyone else.
A week or two later, just as the Aquarian piece came out, I went with a couple of friends to see Reeve in The Fifth of July. We visited his dressing room to say hello after the show, and as an ice-breaker I asked if he’d seen the article. Bad question. Reeve hadn’t liked my closer and said so. He was scowling at me. I felt like I was suddenly in the Twilight Zone. I thought I’d written about the restaurant-tab thing with humor and affection. I’d figured this plus the fact that the overall piece was highly flattering would have charmed him.
To soothe things over I wrote him a note the next day saying I was sorry he had that reaction, that I really thought the humor I got out of our check-paying episode made it a warmer, fuller piece, and that I hoped he wouldn’t hold a grudge.
A few weeks later I ran into Reeve at an invitational party at a Studio 54-like roller skating joint in Chelsea. As soon as he spotted me he came right over, smiling, and said, “Hey, Jeff. Got your note…everything’s cool…don’t worry about it.” We shook hands, he smiled again and said “peace,” and that was that.
What this told me about Reeve is that he was gracious, obviously, and able to handle embarassments and whatnot. It also told me that deep down he was into dignity and protocol and doing things a certain way. I think that attitude bled into his acting on a certain level, and that’s why he wasn’t quite Marlon Brando.
Let There Be Sound
My writing skills are more precise than my verbal skills, to judge by this sound file. But I decided to just throw this in as a way of explaining what I’d like to do henceforth, which is turn Hollywood Elsewhere, or a portion of it rather, into an occasional sound-clip thing.
I’ve always wanted to do radio, I’m fairly loquacious, I have a decent-sounding voice and I like trying new stuff. So let’s see what happens. It makes sense to do this. Everyone’s computer has sound these days — we’re not living in 1998 or ’99 — and it’s easy to record a digital segment and throw it in to the column as a link.
I’ll probably start doing this next week. My speaking style will sharpen up after a while and I’ll get rolling with the whole thing and the segments will eventually be interesting.
I’ve seen Sideways three and a half times, and it’s gotten better with every viewing. It’s my favorite movie of the year now, enjoying a slight edge over Collateral, Touching the Void and The Motorcycle Diaries.
The halfer happened Monday night at a screening for the Broadcast Film Critics Association that was sponsored by Movie City News. I knew I’d be seeing it again at the Sideways premiere on Tuesday evening (10.12), and I mainly wanted to listen to the q & a screening between Sideways director-co-writer Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor.
Movie City News editor David Poland handled the interviewing and question-fielding with his usual aplomb. I’ve since read that the session went on for just over an hour; it felt like half that.
I raised my hand and passed along a comment from an agent friend of mine. She said she didn’t believe that Virginia Madsen would hook up with a guy like Paul Giamatti, which is what happens in the film. Her point was that Madsen is too brainy, busty, beautiful and rich of spirit to pay any mind to a glum and pudgy neurotic.
I told Payne that I think her view is short-sighted, but I wanted to pass along his own response, and here it is: “I think your friend is kind of shallow. I mean, she sounds so L.A.”
I spoke to Payne last night at the after-screening reception. He said he’s working with Taylor on something new, but plans on taking some time off after he finishes promotional duties for the film.
Payne said he’s particularly looking forward to visiting Greece in a few weeks time and attending the 45th International Thessaloniki Festival, which runs from 11.19 through 11.28. (Payne is of Greek ancestry — the IMDB says his birth name was Alexander Papadopoulos.)
The official website says the Thessaloniki festival “assumed its present dynamic internatrional character in 1992, under the direction of Michel Demopoulos.” The site features a quote from Bernardo Bertolucci that says Demopoulos has brought in “a new vitality, opening [the festival] up to a young audience.”
Major filmmaker attenders have included Istvan Szabo, Ivan Passer, Goran Paskalijevic, David Thewlis, Dean Tavoularis, Bernardo Bertolucci and Jerzy Skolimowski. Hey, Demopoulos….do you ever fly in columnists?
Nairobi, Part 2
“It was a nice surprise to see my e-mail posted on the site last week, with a great picture of Nairobi no less.
“Though you might be tempted to think that those giraffes were doctored into the photo of the Nairobi skyline, it is actually possible to see such a view without the aid of PhotoShop.
“The picture must have been taken at Nairobi National Park, which is on the outskirts of town and boasts plenty of giraffes, zebra, gazelles, ostrich and a few rhinos and lions within view of downtown Nairobi’s skyscrapers. Since we get resident rates on park admission ($5 versus the $15 to $30 the tourists pay to get in), my wife and I sometimes bring a picnic blanket and a bottle of wine (South African, of course) to NNP and watch the sun go down as giraffes amble by. A real hardship post, Kenya.
“Kenya’s natural beauty, mix of cultures and ample wildlife have made it a prime location for Hollywood movies about Africa. Ralph Fiennes and Fernando Meirelles were in town a few months ago filming John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener. Some people I know saw Fiennes in the bar of the Serena Hotel, and a friend-of-a-friend white Kenyan journalist reportedly had dinner with him.
“I’m waiting patiently for the arrival of Nicole Kidman, who is supposed to be starring in Tony Scott’s adaptation of Emma’s War, a non-fiction book about a British aid worker who married a Sudanese warlord. I heard somewhere that the filming of this movie (much of which takes place in Nairobi) has been delayed by the crisis in Darfur. Scott is apparently determined to film in the Sudan.
“Incidentally, Kidman’s character, Emma McCune, was killed in a collision with a matatu (minibus taxi) about a block from where I live. Oops…spoiler.
“The most famous movie filmed in Kenya is, of course, Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, based on the life of Karen Blixen, the Danish baroness who “hahd a faaaahm in Aaahfrica.” In her honor, the southeast side of Nairobi, where white farmers and corrupt government officials still own huge pieces of land, is still called Karen. You can tour her former house there. At first glance it looks exquisitely preserved from the colonial days, until you learn that Karen took almost everything she owned back to Denmark with her and that much of the furniture and decorations now filling the house were made for the movie.
“You can also take a hike in the nearby Ngong Hills and linger at Denys Finch-Hatton’s grave, and also contemplate why Robert Redford didn’t at least attempt a British accent.
“An hour outside of Nairobi you can visit Lake Naivasha, another prime filming location. The arabesque Djinn Palace, site of several gauzy debauchery scenes in White Mischief, is still there. You can see it from a boat on the lake when you take a hippo tour, though the mansion now belongs to a Dutch flower magnate and is not open to the public.
“My favorite place to stay at Naivasha is Elsamere, the former lakeside home of George and Joy Adamson, who were the subjects of the old Disney flick Born Free. (the management keeps a scratchy VHS copy at the ready for anyone who wants a screening). Joy, a painter and nurturer of orphaned lions and leopards, was not the prim, bland British babe of the movie but a feisty and abrasive Austrian whose third husband was George, a game warden in Kenya.
“Both Joy and George were murdered — George by Somali poachers and Joy by a
disgruntled servant. The movie, which was a huge hit in its time (just try to get that song out of your head), now looks pretty dated and the production values are pretty embarrassing even by 1960s standards. (Pauline Kael body-slams the movie in her book “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”).
“One of the funniest things is that whenever the Adamson’s go on safari, none of the animals are just standing there peacefully grazing. Every shot is a wild stampede of elephants, gazelles, zebras, etc., as if a production assistant had fired an assault rifle in the air just before the cameras started rolling.
“Up in the Kikuyu highlands near Mount Kenya, you can see where the recent Oscar- winner Nowhere in Africa was filmed. You can also have a drink in the severed-head festooned bar of the Mount Kenya Safari Club, which was founded by William Holden and some of his Hollywood pals so they would have a place to shoot the shit after bagging big game. At least one of the old Tarzan movies was filmed nearby.
“It has recently become vogue for Hollywood producers to throw a few Maasai warriors from Kenya into action flicks to signify `darkest Africa,’ to the extent that one East African journalist recently referred to the Maasai as `the Red Indians of today’s Hollywood adventure movies.’ The most recent example is Tomb Raider 2, partially filmed in Kenya and featuring Djimon Hounsou as an unusually buff Maasai.
“Why are most movies set in Africa pretty bad? Probably because the Africans never get to tell their own stories. I’m hard-pressed to think of more than a couple of Western-produced movies set in Africa (Lumumba, Sarafina, The Gods Must Be Crazy) where the African experience is not filtered through the persective of the Sensitive White Actor to whom the Africans are little more than tragic victims or trusty servants — in other words, reflections of the white man’s own nobility.
“Maybe someday Africans will have a global film industry of their own and more realistic African characters will appear on screen. Nigeria (or Nollywood, to Africans) cranks out nearly as many films in a year as Hong Kong or India, but they are universally crap. And yet that country did produce Chiwetel Ejiofor, so maybe there’s hope.” — Peter Mackenzie, Nairobi, Kenya.
Some of you might be tempted to look at Jeannot Szwarc’s Somewhere in Time in tribute to Christopher Reeve, who gave one of his better performances in it. I happen to be a sucker for this film, not for the “all” of it but because of a closing sequence that I saw at critics’ screening some 24 years ago….but which I haven’t seen since. I asked about this when I happened to run into Somewhere in Time√É¬≠s cinematographer Isadore Mankofsky a few months ago at the Newport Beach Film Festival. I told him how much I admired this final sequence — a longish, ambitiously choreographed, deeply moving tracking shot that’s meant to show the viewer what Reeve’s character is experiencing on his passage from life into death. Mankofsky told me that as the film was about to be released some executive at Universal decided that the shot went on too long and trimmed it with a couple of fade-edits. This was vandalism, pure and simple. Mankofsky said as far as he knew the original cut of this closing sequence no longer exists…but he wasn’t entirely sure.
Anyone looking at Wes Anderson’s upcoming The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Touchstone, 12.25) and saying it’s not Oscar material….as a fairly well-connected journalist friend suggested last weekend…is missing the point. Wes Anderson films are about their own state of mind and nothing further. They simply are, and the crowd doesn’t have stand up and throw their hats into the air for this cosmic fact to be legitimized. The peculiar psychology of a typical Anderson character is mother’s milk for X-factor types, but has always been a bit too skewed in a brainy Glass-family sense for mainstream audiences. And Anderson’s low-key, unforced sense of humor is far too subtle and referenced to play big in the hinterlands.