I’m on my way over to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, hoping against hope that my missing Dollar rental wasn’t stolen but towed. I parked it around 2 pm alongside a snow-covered curb on Montrose Ave. It may have been parked a bit too close to a bus stop. If it hasn’t been towed I’ll have to call 911 and report it stolen. What do rental car companies do when this happens? Do they slap you with stiff penalties? I rented it with a debit card.
The arrival of Criterion’s latest Blu-ray disc made my day. I watched about 15 minutes of it, hopping around from chapter to chapter. I thought the regular DVD was devastating — one of the most perfect pure-film transfers I’d ever seen; the Blu-ray, believe it or not, is a refinement.
God is just not that into you. Sometimes he/she seems to intercede, which most of us interpret as a kind of celestial rooting gesture. But he/she could just as easily watch you get flattened by a chunk of concrete and or be roasted to death inside a burning building. Not because of your number or your karma, but because it’s not his/her call. It’s not that God doesn’t care, but that he/she is way beyond “caring.” I still find it truly mind-boggling that hundreds of of millions of adults believe that that some kind of activist moral force is quietly at work. It’s the biggest sucker fantasy in the history of the planet. And yet I always melt a bit when James Stewart says “oh, God, help me” near the end of The Spirit of St. Louis.
I spoke this morning with Greenberg star Ben Stiller inside a semi-quiet restaurant (i.e., not really quiet enough) adjacent to the Waldorf Astoria’s main lobby. It went well, perhaps of my certainty that Stiller delivers the performance of his career in Noah Baumbach‘s intensely granular film about midlife stagnation and L.A. loneliness. No ambiguity in your head means calm and clarity.
Greenberg (Focus Features, 3.19 limited) is easily the most intriguing film of the new year, and more than worth a tumble. It doesn’t exactly “entertain,” and yet it does — it’s just operating in a low-key way that’s almost entirely about observation, and without a single false note. If your girlfriend doesn’t like it (and she may not), you may want to think about dumping her. Seriously. Because Greenberg is about what a lot of 30ish and 40ish people who haven’t achieved fame and fortune are going through, or will go through. It’s dryly amusing at times, but it’s not kidding around.
Greenberg is a fascinating character-driven drama about Roger Greenberg (Stiller), a neurotic 41 year-old who’s caretaking his younger brother’s Los Angeles home while the brother and his family are on a vacation in Vietnam. It’s mainly about a curious attract-repel relationship between Greenberg and the brother’s gangly, emotionally vulnerable assistant (Greta Gerwig), and an amiable ex-musician friend (Rhys Ifans) with whom Greenberg shares various confessions/reflections.
Things don’t “happen” as much as we learn more and more about Greenberg’s internals. The basic drill is that he’s become stuck in a moderately unhappy fall-back position in his life, and is close to astonished that things haven’t turned out as well as he thought they might when he was younger. He blew a shot at being in a successful rock band in his 20s, we’re told, and is now working as a carpenter in Brooklyn. Not miserable but neurotic and fickle, and certainly not content.
Is Greenberg funny? In a LQTM sense, yeah, but to most people LQTM isn’t what they go to movies for. I do, however. I was quietly smirking at Greenberg the whole time, having a quiet little blast with it. And then it grew on me the second time. I didn’t realize how sublime the ending is until I saw it again. That’s my fault.
What is clear from the start is that for Stiller’s Greenberg, carpentry won’t do. He’s too much of an artist-searcher complainer, and it’s not enough to anesthetize the demons. The film reminds that when you have a hungry visionary Bengal tiger inside you, you’d best express it or the tiger will eat you up from within. That or you’ll start collapsing bit by bit.
I know that tune myself. My main job in my early to mid 20s was trimming trees, which didn’t work for me either. At all. I was fucking around on the margins as a party-hound and a rock-band drummer and a chaser of skirt. And the Bengal tiger began to growl more and more loudly — let me out! — and I began to see myself as a failure because I wasn’t trying hard enough to make that happen.
I’d told Stiller earlier that I was impressed with how deeply Greenberg just settles in with the manner and psychology of Stiller’s character without feeling the need to go all “story” on the audience. A genuinely ballsy move on Noah’s part. The humor is so subdued and embedded within situation and milieu that it’s not humor — it’s John Cassevetes-like introspection. I’m obviously saying that with respect.
Stiller’s performance, in any event, seems to me like a landmark-type thing — a seriously ego-free inhabiting of antsy-quirk neuroticism. Being, not acting, and certainly with any audience comfort-winks. A breakthrough of some kind.
If there’s a rowdy commercial horse laugh in Greenberg, I missed it — and bravo to that. I didn’t “laugh” when I saw it, but I was constantly LQTM-ing by way of surprisingly intimate recognition. I felt that I was communing in part with my late brother, Tony. Greenberg is nothing if not relentlessly itself, and never seems to go for schtick of any kind. Personal recognition laughter, as most of us know, is never “hah-hah-hah.” As Michael O’Donoghue once said, making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.
“I think you connected in the same way with the movie that we all did while making it,” Stiller replied in an e-mail — eloquently, I thought. “I too recognize Greenberg, and I have to say I’ve never had an experience like this, where a character was so specifically written, and I ended up feeling a connection with that aspect of myself. I actually feel protective of him — or maybe that aspect of people I love who have not had the good fortune to have outward success or acknowledgement in this world. It can be very painful, just to get through the days. To get past your own self imposed barriers, that are all very real.
“I feel very fortunate to have had this experience, and I love Noah for it. He is a truly good person, who as you said did something brave in movies now — allowing the character’s real, incremental growth, to be the story. I learned a lot from him.”
During last Saturday’s panel discussion of the withered state of film criticism following a screening of Gerald Peary‘s For The Love of Movies, notoriously snarly critic Richard Schickel (formerly of Time) was asked if he ever reads criticism online. “Why would you do that?,” he replied. “I don’t actually read many reviews. I never did. But I’m not going to go around looking for Harry Knowles. I mean, look at that person! Why would anybody…pay the slightest attention to anything he said? He’s a gross human being.”
Critic/documentarian Richard Schickel; AICN’s Harry Knowles
Besides Schickel the panel included Vogue‘s John Powers, former L.A. Weekly and current NPR critic Ella Taylor, former Christian Science Monitor critic David Sterritt and Christian Science Monitor critic Peter Rainer. The talk was moderated by Indiewire‘s Anne Thompson. It happened at the Billy Wilder theatre inside Westwood’s Armand Hammer Museum.
“Watching all these kind of earnest people discussing the art or whatever the hell it is of criticism, all that, it just made me so sad,” Schickel remarked. “You mean they have nothing else to do? I don’t know honestly the function of reviewing anything.
“I remember talking to Paul Schrader once about how when he came into movies, he thought he entered what was the natural state of movies, which is you got to make Taxi Driver,” he recalled. “You got to make all these weird, interesting movies and Hollywood wanted you to do it and it was only when it began to stop he realized he was living in the historical aberration.
“And for a lot of film critics, we are living in the historical aberration probably in the history of the arts where you got to make a lot of money, write about an art form at its peak and actually not only have it at its peak, but the public in general was going to that art form for ways of understanding the world. It’s not that way now.”
I’d love to attend Friday night’s Spirit Awards presentation at L.A. Live in Los Angeles, but, as I noted on 2.17, it seems excessive to throw down $600 or $700 bills (plane fare, car rental, incidentals) to that end. Plus I never get invited to any of those pre-Oscar agent parties in the hills. Plus I just watch the show on Sundays and live-blog, which I could do from Prague or Santiago if I had to.
So I’m thinking instead about attending Movieline‘s Oscar-viewing soiree at 92YTribeca. Maybe. If I can be assured there won’t be too much yappity-yap from the hosts (Michelle Collins, Sarah Benincase, Sara Schaefer), and if there’s a good spot to live-blog from (table, semi-comfortable stool or chair, nearby wall outlet). Otherwise screw it — I’ll just watch it from home with the cats.
Two or three recent articles in which military vets have challenged The Hurt Locker‘s accuracy have been counter-balanced to some extent by a 2.28 ABC News article — co-authored by Martha Raddatz, Richard Coolidge and Joel Siegel — that quotes two former bomb-deactivation specialists. Their view is that certain events depicted in the film are actually fairly dead-on.
Marine Tim Colomer, who de-activated “more than 150 bombs in Iraq” as a Marine explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) technician in 2006 and ’07, says that The Hurt Locker “took me back to Iraq almost immediately…it was tantamount to being there.” And Marine Staff Sgt. Gabriel Burkman, wounded twice during his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that a scene criticized by some vets — i.e., Jeremy Renner‘s Sgt. James removing his bomb suit before a defusing — is grounded in reality. “Sometimes the bomb suit is not applicable,” he says, “and some team leaders won’t use it.”
Colomer “says the movie takes some ‘artistic license,’ but he calls the bomb scenes realistic — and acknowledges that he took off his bomb suit once in a while, just like Renner’s character. ‘You are so slowed down in that bomb suit, especially if you’re getting shot at or there’s indirect fire — you can’t afford to be that slow,’ he says.”