Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I'm taking a hiatus from this blog. (The cries of shock and disapointment reverbering around the internets is deafening!). But hey, I'll be regularly posting snippets, news items and music over at my new digs, also called the Mixed-Up Files. Cause you know that name rocks. I just think the quick 'n easy tumblr-style is what I'm in the mood for these days. See you on the other side!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Alphabet Meme

1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.

2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of a film's title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don't know of any films with those titles.

3. Return of the Jedi belongs under "R," not "S" as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Wars trilogy; all that followed start with "S." Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs under "R," not "I" as in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all films in the LOTR series belong under "L" and all films in the Chronicles of Narnia series belong under "C," as that's what those filmmakers called their films from the start. In other words, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgement to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned.

4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under "T."

5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type "alphabet meme" into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google.

All About Eve
Double Indemnity
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Far From Heaven
Hannah and Her Sisters
The Ice Storm
Jackie Brown
Key Largo
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Mean Girls
Now, Voyager
Opening Night
The Piano
It's Quite odd that I can't think of one film I liked beginning with Q...
Singin' in the Rain
Todo Sobre Mi Madre
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The Visitor
A Woman Under the Influence
X-Men 2
Y Tu Mama Tambien


Open tag, y'all. Go wild.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Choking on pretzels

Yet again, I offer up apologies for my prolonged leave of absence. My bad. As a combined welcome back to myself, and a sorry note, I present two new reviews. Shock and, indeed, horror!


Paying to see W in the cinema, less than a week after Barack Obama’s historic ascent to be the first black President-Elect of the United States, and coming at the wind-down of a politically riveting two year campaign in which I (and most of the Western World) became saturated up to our eyelids with policies, candidates and CNN, feels like a bit of a ripoff. You wonder why on earth Oliver Stone felt the need to make this particular film, a biopic of the sitting US leader, at this point in time. JFK and Nixon, Stone’s two other Presidential targets, were made years after each men had left office, surely its far too early to make the kind of incisive, thoughtful feature the topic deserves. Without the benefit of hindsight to shade in all the consequences, the film feels frustratingly unfinished. Even worse, after two years of exciting new political figures and rhetoric, the subject translates as boring and tired.

So, Stone is left floundering between these two poles - on the one hand, too early and on the other, too late. Post-Obama, post-Palin, post-Joe the Plumber, does he really expect an audience to still chortle at Bush’s mangled syntax? This film seems stuck in 2004, when everyone passed on those Bushism emails and made jokes about cowboys. The political landscape has changed drastically since then, and one-liners which might have seemed amusing a few years ago now appear vaguely embarrassing. A number of familiar remarks are shoehorned into the screenplay - “"Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?", “Misunderestimated” - sounding more like the product of laziness on screenwriter Stanley Weiser’s part, than cutting satire.

A reliance on cheap laughs (which, incidentally, didn’t seem to inspire much mirth in the, albeit mostly empty, screening I attended) wouldn’t be such a problem if W dared to probe deep into its protagonist’s inner world. Josh Brolin’s Dubya comes across as bit of a dunderhead, someone fundamentally confused about his place in the world and constantly struggling to escape his father’s shadow. So far, so common. But, frustratingly, that’s as far as it goes. We learn nothing new about any of the main shakers ‘n players of the Bush administration, nor do we gain any radical understanding of the events that transpired throughout their rule. Many epochs are, in fact, left out altogether. Nothing big is made of 2004’s election scandal and Katrina isn’t mentioned at all. To the film’s credit, this version Bush isn’t crudely drawn as the cartoonish villain, but I’d argue it swings too far back in the opposite direction; by leaving out some of the most reprehensible acts of his administration, it basically hands him a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Thankfully, many of the performances are worth a look, in particular Brolin’s leading role. It’s not a particularly subtle portrayal - but Bush is not a subtle kind of guy - and Brolin shades in just the right amount of differing emotional facets (and neatly side-steps the traditional Gurning Monkey impression) to create a vivid character. The always-welcome James Cromwell is probably the standout in the cast; he is frankly terrifying as Bush Snr, and his performance exists as the most celluloid-ready in the picture, as he doesn’t rely on a physical similarity. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Thandie Newton, who thankfully has little to say as Condoleeza Rice. Her performance is frankly bizarre; she looks like Condi, but speaks as if she’s only just learned how to form vowels with her mouth. She appears to be in acute physical pain during her scenes; whether this was a conscious actor’s choice or an actual ailment was hard to say. Seriously, I’m baffled to what she was doing in this part. Newton’s Condi would have looked out-of-place on SNL, where Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin at least sounded like a human. The cast as a whole are shockingly un-united. It’s as if they picked up on the unfocused direction and sloppy script and misinterpreted them as a thematic choice rather than faults; some of them seem to think they’re in a proper adult drama while others simply chew the scenery and play for laughs.

It’s not a complete disaster - aside from everything previously mentioned, plus the disorientating cinematography and editing AND its overly long- and there are some choice moments. Toby Jones pops as Karl Rove and the final shot, employing an old but visually arresting baseball metaphor, is well done. Yet the film, on the whole, fails to deliver. It speaks volumes that, during my screening, I was itching for it to end so I could go home and visit the various punditry blogs I’ve been reading. When a film, which should be bolder, more exciting and inventive than real life only leaves me yearning to get back into reality, you know you’ve got a failure on your hands.

High School Musical

Despite the groaning shelf loads of East High Wildcats cheerleading uniforms and embossed lunchboxes, the Disney moguls have neglected one key merchandising option for the High School Musical 3 franchise: a limited edition can of Ronseal paint. That said, it is debatable whether it would sell, but Ronseal’s famous tagline - “Does exactly what it says on the tin” - serves as a handy summation of exactly why High School Musical 3 is, in fact, a Good Film. In this respect I share in the sentiments of Mark Kermode, the reviewer-in-residence over at Simon Mayo’s BBC 5 Live Friday slot, who recently named the third instalment of the franchise as his movie of the week, much to the disgust of a number of regular listeners to texted and emailed in to complain. Where I differ from the Good Doctor in one respect is that the film didn’t make me tear up, but apart from this, I share his enthusiasms wholeheartedly. HSM3 delivers exactly what you’d expect: a heart-warming, inspirational story peopled with good looking young stars and a song-and-dance routine every few minutes. This is all to be expected, but what I didn’t anticipate was the tricksy choreography, the homages to Fosse, a number of good belly laughs and a general accumulation of good feeling that lasted long after I stepped out of the cinema. After a rake of disappointing features in the cinema this past month, I’m surprised and a little perversely happy to say this is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen in theatres for months.

There’s no question of who the star is. Zac Efron bookends the film, his blandly anodyne features engulfing the screen, sweaty and focused during the opening basketball game, and beaming in what can only be relief at the end. I don’t know where I’d gotten the memo that Efron was leaden-footed, but it was obviously mistaken: the boy can dance surprisingly well, and some of the most enjoyable moments in the film come when he gets his Saturday Night Fever on. Yet Troy’s main storyline, his romance with the irritatingly perfect Vanessa Anne Hudgens, who plays Gabriella, provides us with some of the film’s least interesting moments. A rendezvous in a tree house, a wardrobe-consultation meeting on the roof of their school that develops into a Waltz 101, yet another romantic tree-based conversation; the filmmakers seem determined to lift these two lovebirds high in the air, but it’ll take more vertical height to elevate this rather pedestrian storyline. As usual in films such as this, the supporting characters steal the show and in this case it falls to scheming drama queen Sharpay Evans and her campy choreographer brother Ryan. Their main number, the so-catchy-it-hurts “I Want It All”, is the film’s undoubtable highlight, with snazzy production design that almost seems cribbed from the dream sequences in classics like Singin’ in the Rain. Ryan, all perma-grin and Jazz Hands, and Sharpay, who’s own blend of Britney/Paris/Nicole-lite obliviousness and Academy of the Dramatic Arts deviousness, have a great rapport and the film immediately perks up whenever they’re on screen, This doesn’t leave Troy completely flailing around in their dust, however. An energetic dance routine in a scrap yard with Troy and Chad (Corbin Bleu) isn’t likely to leave the ghosts of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor nervously looking over their shoulders, but packs just the right amount of playful muscular bravado and fancy footwork to make the scene pop.

Coming from an Irish, Catholic second level school, I can’t claim to relate to the world of High School Musical, but then again, I doubt very much if American teenagers could relate to it either. It’s not so much the impromptu musical numbers which destroy any semblance of realism, but the fact that nobody ever seems to go to class or study for exams. The characters’ fears for the future are broached tentatively, but not in any way that would allow a regular teenager - worried over grades and colleges and jobs - to identify with. In its narrative and characterisation, the film treads on many toes. For example, is Sharpay, supposedly a seasoned and talented amateur actress, really so disgusted by the onstage appearance of Troy’s understudy that she gives up on her lines and blocking completely? Would a basketball star really hand over the reigns to an inexperienced doofus freshman at the critical juncture in his last ever game? Are we supposed to find a puerile exercise in bullying and public humiliation endearing? This questions, and more, float around the peripherary of the whole HSM 3 experience, but don’t expect to hold on to them for very long. No sooner had a quibble formulated in my head than the next glitzy set piece had shoved it right out again. You could strike up a black mark for this shameless seducing of the audience, but then you’d be missing the point. Placed back to back with a supposedly more serious film such as W, there's no question of which work comes across as fuller, more even-handed and, best of all, most inviting.

Monday, September 15, 2008

DFW (1962-2008)

Sad news, folks. A true original and a mind-bogglingly talented writer, David Foster Wallace, was found dead in an apparant suicide at his home in California on Friday. It's an incredible loss, not only to his thousands of devoted fans, but to his wife Karen Green, and his students at Pomona College, where he has been teaching creative writing for the last few years. I've been an admirer of Foster Wallace since I happily plowed through what we can now say is his definitive work, the gargantuan Infinite Jest, last summer. I've also enjoyed numerous essays by him, on topics as diverse as John McCain's 2000 presidential bid, luxury holiday cruises, playing tennis and David Lynch. Whatever he turned his attention on, he illuminated with wit, depth and a characteristic curiousity about the world. His writing was lucid, funny, sometimes melancholy, often challenging but never obtuse. I'd often approach a new piece by him with a dictionary at my side, but finish reading with a head full of new concepts and questions about the world, and a heart full of emotions, rather than just a list of new vocabulary.

But while his own fiction often showcased his mastery of postmodern pyrotechnics — a cold but glittering arsenal of irony, self-consciousness and clever narrative high jinks — he was also capable of creating profoundly human flesh-and-blood characters with three-dimensional emotional lives. In a kind of aesthetic manifesto, he once wrote that irony and ridicule had become “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture” and mourned the loss of engagement with deep moral issues that animated the work of the great 19th-century novelists.
- from The NY Times

I'm really shocked and upset by this news, as are many writers, bloggers and others literary types. If you try to enter the McSweeney's site, you're greated by a blank page. "Timothy McSweeney is devastated and lost". I know how they feel.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Dr. Smith’s Lost in the Space at the End of Summer Movie Quiz.

I'm partaking in one of the seasonal Q&As hosted by Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. In comparison with the veteran commenters over at the site, I'm woefully uneducated, but this was a helluva lotta fun to do.

1) Your favorite musical moment in a movie

This includes musicals, right? If not, I’ll have to rack my brains a little harder, but if we are including musicals, then it has to be the Gideon & Jagger scene from All That Jazz. There are so many iconic moments in that film - the entire opening sequence for example - but the moment that hits me right in the solar plexus is this one. Seen out of context, it’s wonderful;
Peter Allen’s singing, the natural camaraderie between Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi and of course, the dancing. But seen as part of the whole film, it becomes almost too much for me to bear. When I first saw All That Jazz, I rewatched this one scene maybe 10 times. Since then, I have no idea how many times I’ve watched that one scene, but it must be nearing the hundreds. The thought of Joe Gideon’s girlfriend and daughter working on that routine for hours, to get it just right for the notorious perfectionist. The knowledge that even if it wasn’t perfect, he’d be bowled over regardless. The fact that Kate is so loving and caring with Michelle, and thatall the basic ingredients for a happy family are here, ut yet Joe continues to sleep around and throw his life away. The part where Reinking plays Michelle’s stomach like a piano, glances at Joe and says “Pretty pictures.” Joe’s funky apartment, with all the theatre paraphernalia and those “whatchamacallit lights”. The part where the duo rush at Joe to kiss him. Finally, and most importantly, Joe’s face throughout. I don’t know how Roy Scheider does it. Amusement, regret, incredulity, sadness, pride - they’re all there. The killer: during the line, “And every gal only had one fellow”. His face at that point slays me. It’s a little flash of recognition, of regret and embarrassment and still you can see he’ll never change. Beautiful.

If we’re not talking musicals, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek slow dancing in the dark to Nat King Cole in Badlands. I am so excited about the upcoming rerelease.

2) Ray Milland or Dana Andrews
I have this unwritten rule, which states: if you are presented with a multiple choice question and one of the answers is connected to Laura (1944), this is your best bet.

3) Favorite Sidney Lumet movie
You can’t go wrong with a most of his films, but I’ll pull out something a little different: Garbo Talks, while not a great film by any means, is entertaining purely because of Anne Bancroft. She plays this firecracker New Yoiker whose dying wish is to meet Greta Garbo. Every minute when she’s not on screen (a quite sizeable amount of time, tbh) is quite dull, but near the end Lumet grants her this great, lengthy monologue about the similarities between herself and Garbo. Fantastic acting.

4) Biggest surprise of the just-past summer movie season
The pregnancy quotient is way down on last year.

5) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth
Remember the rule! Gene Tierney.

6) What’s the last movie you saw on DVD? In theaters?
On DVD: Raising Arizona. “Mighty fine cereal flakes, Mrs. McDonough!”

In theaters: The Strangers.

7) Irwin Allen’s finest hour?

8) What were the films where you would rather see the movie promised by the poster than the one that was actually made?
It hasn’t been released yet, but I’d be 24% more likely to go watch the remake of The Women if it featured Vanessa Williams doing an impression of Annette Bening. Which, you know, I'm not completely sure it doesn't.

9) Chow Yun-Fat or Tony Leung
Tony Leung.

10) Most pretentious movie ever
Garden State.

11) Favorite Russ Meyer movie

12) Name the movie that you feel best reflects yourself, a movie you would recommend to an acquaintance that most accurately says, “This is me.”
Hannah And Her Sisters or Mean Girls.

13) Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo
To be honest, I really need to see more work by both women to make a fair judgement. But this is a blog, where fair appraisals aren’t required and I’m saying Dietrich purely because of her role in Witness For The Prosecution. The twist in the tail of that character! I’m still as gob smacked as I was the first time I saw it, years and years ago.

14) Best movie snack? Most vile movie snack?
I usually sneak in sweets; peanut M&Ms, Minstrels, Smarties. Most vile? Buttered popcorn.

15) Current movie star who would be most comfortable in the classic Hollywood studio system
Rachel McAdams.

16) Fitzcarraldo—yes or no?

17) Your assignment is to book the ultimate triple bill to inaugurate your own revival theater. What three movies will we see on opening night?
Everyone needs a good laughing work-out, so I’ll kick start my theater off with three of my favourite comedies: His Girl Friday, Tootsie and The Lady Eve.

18) What’s the name of your theater? (The all-time greatest answer to this question was once provided by Larry Aydlette, whose repertory cinema, the Demarest, is, I hope, still packing them in…)
The Local. Okay, that's a terrible name. The Fleapit. No, that's worse. The Local Fleapit? PERFECT. Hilarity will ensue.

19) Favorite Leo McCarey movie

20) Most impressive debut performance by an actor/actress.
Angela Lansbury in Gaslight. She celebrated her 18th birthday on set! Watch the video, she talks about her experience on the film and there’s a photograph of the birthday, with Ingrid Bergman cutting her cake!

21) Biggest disappointment of the just-past summer movie season
Many, many subpar dramas. I know the summer isn’t prime drama season, but there were quite a few movies that looked promising enough until I actually watched the damn things. Smart People, Married Life, bleurgh.

22) Michelle Yeoh or Maggie Cheung

23) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Overrated
The Dark Knight. I liked it a lot, but I mean - come on. It wasn't even the best film I saw that month, let alone the best film of all time.

24) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Underrated

Tom McCarthy.

25) Fritz the Cat—yes or no?
No. I prefer Tommy the Cat!

26) Trevor Howard or Richard Todd
Trevor Howard was in The Third Man. Nuff said.

27) Antonioni once said, “I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” What filmmaker working today most fruitfully ignores the rules? What does ignoring the rules of cinema mean in 2008?
The best answer would probably be to say Paul Thomas Anderson, which I partly agree with. But I also have to pitch in a mention for Tom McCarthy, who has shown us, in a mere two films, that there is still room for bittersweet, character driven pieces and that Big Liberal Ideas can form an integral part of a film without overtaking it.

28) Favorite William Castle movie

29) Favorite ethnographically oriented movie
Aren't most films ethnographically oriented? West Side Story, I guess.

30) What’s the movie coming up in 2008 you’re most looking forward to? Why?
Ah, so many. Blindness, because the book haunts me with regular nightmares and I’m curious to see how on earth it’ll translate to screen. Burn After Reading, because even the trailer makes me laugh. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Doubt. Synecdoche, New York.

31) What deceased director would you want to resurrect in order that she/he might make one more film?
I wonder how Hitch would have handled the 21st century? New technology and all.

32) What director would you like to see, if not literally entombed, then at least go silent creatively?
Tim Burton could keep mum for a couple of years and I’d be happy. Not for ever, you understand, just five years or so. Let some new ideas percolate around his brain. Spend some quality time watching dvds, catching up on recent actors who aren’t called Johnny or Helena.

Friday, August 22, 2008

It’s hard out there for a Tori Amos fan.

Not only do you have to deal with the inevitable "She's just a poor Kate Bush for the nineties!", but you also have to defend her while at the same time acknowledging that her body of work includes The Beekeeper. She appears in public sprouting off about faeries. She indulges in tedious dress up games. She cannot edit her albums for shit. All these things are qualities that would usually turn me off an artist immediately, but because of the entirety of Little Earthquakes, Under The Pink, From The Choirgirl Hotel, Boys For Pele bits and pieces of Strange Little Girls, Scarlet's Walk, and American Doll Posse, the live disc of To Venus And Back, the odd interview in which she can be hysterically funny and a whole load of b-sides, I make a huge exception for Tori. She can release half a dozen albums that are on the same level as The Beekeeper from now on, if she so feels like it (I hope she doesn't, obvs) but because of that back catalogue, I'm an Ear With Feet for life. So, in honour of her 45th birthday, I'm making a Top Ten Tori Tunes list.

Even leaving a handful of her studio albums off the longlist, a top ten will be hard to compile especially taking into account all the b-sides and covers and live tracks available. Lady is prolific. And I'm so fickle, this list will be obselote tomorrow, when I decide that 'Winter' or 'Cooling' or her version of 'Famous Blue Raincoat' or 'Tear In My Hand' or any number of other songs deserve a placing. You get the picture. But for now, here they are:

10. Father Lucifer

An example of how her left-of-centre interviewee style sometimes works really well can be found during the VH1 Storytellers concert. This song opens that concert, and I laugh every time I hear her introduction to it: "And my dad and I...I...I really do love my dad, it took us many years to, um, I think, respect each other's spiritual beliefs. So, um, when I came home, I guess it was a Thanksgiving because I remember a bird, and forks going down at the table, when my father said to me, "Tori Ellen, I can't believe you wrote this song about me". And I said "I write everything about you, what are you surprised about?". And he said, "No, but I'm really hurt about this one." And I said, "Well, which one is it?". And he said, "Well, you call me Satan." And I said, "No! I was taking drugs with the South American shaman and I really did visit the devil, and I had a journey!" And he went, Oh praise Jesus!". The version above isn't necessarily my favourite (like I said before, I love the Storytellers version, and you can't beat the studio cut) but it's still fantastic.

09. Mr Zebra

This only negative thing I can think to say about this song is that it's way too short. At 1 minute and 6 seconds, its over before you get a chance to appreciate all its jaunty, wry offerings. My solution: play on repeat. I listened to this song on repeat every morning during Transition Year, while walking up to school. It was like my own personal theme tune. That last line! "Too bad the burial was premature, she said. And smiled."And watch the above live video, where she completely screws it up but manages to save it just at the last moment.

08. Northern Lad

Okay, ignore the stupid homemade video and just listen to the song. I could've chose a live version to put here, but the studio version makes me cry. It's the only song I can think of containing an f-bomb that can make me well up every time it comes on. I think it's the line "I guess you go too far / When pianos try to be guitars".

07. She's Your Cocaine / Raspberry Swirl

Shoot me. I couldn't choose between the two, so they can jostle for space together at number seven on my list. Both are on From The Choirgirl Hotel (at times my overall favourite), both are fast, sweaty and slightly sleazy. Love it.

06. Playboy Mommy

The saddest Tori song, bar none.

05. Talula

I surprised myself by putting this on the list. I came to Pele later than most of her other stuff, so I'm not as familiar with some of the tracks on it in the same way as, say, Little Earthquakes. Yet this song stays in the mind for a number of reasons. The harpsichord and mandolin are possibly my favourite instrumentation of every Tori Amos song, but I think it's this section:

I got big bird on the fishing line
with a bit of a shout a bit of a shout
a bit of an angry snout
he's my favourite hooker of the whole bunch
and i know about his only bride
and how the russians die on the ice
i got my rape hat on
honey but i always could accessorise
and i never cared too much for the money
but i know right now
that it's in god's hands
but i don't know who the father is.
I love the phrasing of that whole piece, it's great to sing along to. When she suddenly breaks out the falsetto on "and I never cared too much for the money", she sounds like Prince.

04. Muhammed My Friend

Every time I listen to the studio version of this, the introductory piano solo drives me insane. I can't wait to delve into the main body of the song, goddamit! And yet, I couldn't do without that piano solo. It creates a tension, an anticipation, a pause before that triumphant opening couplet. I hate David Letterman, but the above version is worth a watch.

03. Siren

Anyone remember the 1998 Great Expectations movie, directed by Alfonso Cuaron? No, me neither. Looking it up on IMDB, the castlist is crazy: Robert deNiro, Anne Bancroft, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, Gwennie Paltrow. Maybe it's just me, but I had no idea any of those people were ever in a film together. Anyway, I'm thankful for it because it gave us one of Tori's best recent songs. I always think of circles when I listen to it. That chorus. It sounds elliptical
to me, or something.

02. Take To The Sky

I never actually told anybody this, but 'Take To The Sky' was the unofficial sponser of my Leaving Cert year. Anytime I felt grumpy or tired or bogged down in exam revision, I listened to this. It's defiant and quietly furious, catchy as all get out and features some bitchin' piano slaps. Exams? "Here I stand with a sword in my hand!". (Yeah, I know how lame that sounds. But it worked like a charm!)

01. Precious Things

I said that this list is exremely subject to change, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this will always be numero uno. It was the first Tori Amos song I absolutely fell in love with. Let me flash back for a second, to Christmas 2003. I was heavily in the throes of my Nirvana phase, but I spotted a review of an best-of album called Tales of a Librarian in some music mag and liked what I read. After downloading 'Cornflake Girl' as a taster, I decided to buy it and so I purchased it the next time I was in town. I had liked 'Cornflake Girl' (who doesn't, right?) but when I heard this song, I was blown away. It opens the collection and is the absolute best primer a newbie could hope for. Everything essential about her is contained in this one song: beautiful piano playing, a novelistic sense of storytelling, the Catholicism, spurts of sudden rage - those jarring bursts of electric guitar still give me the shivers - humour, even the Trent Reznor friendship ("those demigods / with their nine-inch nails"). I always associate this with Margaret Atwood (I think I was reading Cat's Eye for the first time around this period). The song and the book kind of bleed into one another, both are extremely important to me. To borrow a line from another song not on this list, "They say you were something in those formative years". Yeah, I was something. Obsessed with this song. Still am. Listen!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The man who walked on air

Yeah, I know. Long time no blog. There's no particular excuse or reason, other than general ambivalence towards it, but I had to post about the most recent film I saw in theaters, James Marsh's film, Man On Wire. Give and take a Wall-E here and a The Visitor there, this is one of the best films I've seen all year. Come to think of it, all three have something in common. The critically-adored Pixar smash, the low-budget immigration story buried inside Tom McCarthy's character based second film and the award winning documentary about wire-walker Philippe Petit all share a common feeling. Watching each of the three, I felt the urgent need pressed upon me to really appreciate life, to take chances, to create art. Believe me, I know how cheesy this all sounds. But watching Philippe Petit dancing across the empty space between the twin towers, his only support a tiny cable, I felt truly exhilarated. There's a beautiful moment when he spots a policeman on the top of one of the towers, urging him to come back to safety, and Petit's face breaks into this beatific smile. It's hilarious, extraordinary, terrifying (at this moment, he's 400 metres up in the air).

The basic story has been told and retold to death. Petit, a French street performer and self-taught wire walker (a much classier term than tightrope walker, don't you think?) became obsessed with the World Trade Centre towers as they were being built. He followed their progress in the French newspapers, all the while formulating a plan in the back of his mind. He wanted to walk across them. He needed to walk across them. The towers became a full blown obsession for him. So he acted on his obsession: gathering a town, scoping out the towers, reading, sketching, making diagrams. Insane preparations. He rigged up a mock cable in a Frencg field and got a bunch of friends to jump up on down on it as he crossed, to stimulate the probable wind conditions. He had notebooks filled with complex instructions and doodles. He made contacts inside the WTC, so his team could have mock I.D. cards. 6 years of intense planning, all culminating in 45 minutes on a clear August morning in 1974. Having snuck up to the highest floor, hidden from the guards and rigged the cable across the two towers (an incredibly complex manouevre), early birds in New York city were treated to the spectacle. Petit crossed back and forth 8 times, pausing at different points to kneel, lie down and look up at the clouds and, insanely, to actually look straight down. I'll repeat that: he knelt on the wire and gazed down into New York city, 400 metres above it. I get dizzy climbing the stairs into the attic!

It's an interestingly constructed film, mixing talking heads, archive footage and artful reconstructions in order to dazzle the audience. Petit himself, now 59, is a lively, engaging storyteller. His wide eyed retelling of his escapades are amusing, but his gleeful joie de vivre is set off by some of the other contributers. His former girlfriend, Annie Allix and one time best friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, both provide moving accounts. They are both impressed and saddened by Petit. After the feat, his relationship with both people fizzled out; perhaps a necessity after collaborating on something that intense. It's one of the things I liked most about the documentary, its focus on the intense planning of the 'before' and the bittersweet letdown of the 'after', as well as the glorification of the event itself. Go see it, please. It's the most thrilling, moving paean to art and the creative impulse that you'll see in the cinema all year.

More on Petit:

I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Unbelievable really....[E]verybody was spellbound in the watching of it

- the eyewitness report of Sgt. Charles Daniels, the officer assigned to coax Petit down.

'Many people use the words "death defying" or "death wishing" when they talk about wire-walking. Many people have asked me: "So do you have a death wish?" After doing a beautiful walk, I feel like punching them in the nose. It's indecent. I have a life wish.'

- in his own words. From an interview with the Observer.

I also discovered that Paul Auster (i.e. my favourite writer) has a connection to Petit! Living in Paris in the early seventies, he encountered Petit as a street performer. Captivated, he followed his career with interest, which ended up with a meeting between the two men. Auster helped Petit with getting his book, On The High Wire, published, and he also translated it into English from the French original. In the preface to the book, Auster writes a piece on his appreciation of Petit and I have it in my Collected Prose. Here's a short excerpt, describing his first sighting of Petit. He taps into what's so magnetic about the man:

"Unlike other street preformers, he did not play to the crowd. Rather, it was somehow as though he had allowed the audience to share in the working of his thoughts, had made us privy to some deep, inarticulate obsession within him. Yet there was nothing overly personal about what he did. Everything was revealed metaphorically, as if at one remove, through the medium of the performance. His juggling was precise and self-involved, like some conversation he was holding with himself. He elaborated the most complex combinations, intricate mathematical patterns, arabesques of nonsensical beauty, while at the same time keeping his gestures as simple as possible. Throught it all, he managed to radiate a hypnotic charm, oscilliating somewhere between demon and clown. No one said a word. It was as though his silence were a command for others to be silent as well. The crowd watched, and after the performance was over, everyone put money in the hat. I realised that I had never seen anything like it before."