Happy 2012!

Well, Joe and Amy, my two older children, are finally quiet in bed after staying up to welcome in the new year. My younger son Josh gave out around 10, and my youngest, Lauryn, made it to 11. Of course, the four dogs zonked out as soon as the food stopped flowing.

I’ve taken a hiatus from blogging during a really busy fall semester–lots of work projects going on in addition to my regular teaching load, and the kids had a busy fall school schedule with homework, projects, and performances. We stuck around town this year for Christmas, and I’ve been slowly “rediscovering” our house, getting caught up on laundry and clearing out the clutter that accumulates over a semester. There have been a lot of topics I’ve wanted to write about, but just haven’t had the time. I’m hoping to get back into a regular shedule of posting in 2012.

For a quick snapshot, here’s what I’m watching and reading:

Book–The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. A wonderfully written first novel, sort of about baseball, mostly about life. Funny and poignant.

Movies–I’m on a Martin Scorcese kick these days. Watched The Aviator and Gangs of New York on DVD and saw Hugo over Thanksgiving. Love his eye–the guy just knows how to tell a story in pure cinematic language. Saw Hugo with the kids and was impressed with how riveted they were to the Harold Lloyd sequences: good film doesn’t have to have lots of special effects; intelligent humor will grab an audience every time. I also just watched Midnight in Paris and Beginners and liked both.

TV–I finally decided to sample Downton Abbey on Netflix and ended up watching all seven episodes of Season One in a single day. The multi-layered plot involving multiple social levels hooked me immediately. I also got interested because I’m not as well-versed in the years leading up to World War I as I’d like to be. The series begins the day after the sinking of the Titanic and ends with Britain declaring war on Germany. Season Two starts up this month and covers the war years.

Oh, and I’ve been playing on the Wii a lot in the past few days with the kids–getting creamed mostly but having fun.

Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott, and Boring Movies

Michelle Williams and Shirley Henderson in Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff.”

On June 3,  Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, chief film critics for The New York Times co-wrote a piece titled “In Defense of the Slow and Boring,” in which they argue that not all film need be escapist entertainment, that there is room for movies in which not much happens but in which much is meant.

I found it provocative for a couple of reasons.  For one, it takes me back a few decades when I was in charge of picking the video (it was the 80s) a group of us was going to watch.  At the store, I deliberated long and hard between a film I’d seen recently and thought was great and a “sure-thing” blockbuster.  I couldn’t decide, so I rented both, figuring if they hated my first choice, I had a back-up.  Ten minutes into Babette’s Feast, my friend Mick turned to me and said, “Is anybody going to do anything other than make soup from dried fish?”  I knew I’d lost them and popped in Die Hard.

Dargis and Scott’s column also reminds me of a conversation I once had with my dad, who came in the room when I was home on break from college and asked what I was reading.  I think it was Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  If you’re familiar with it, you know it’s a novel in what what happens is not nearly as important as what the central character thinks about what is happening to her.  After trying in vain to make it sound “interesting” to him, I added that I was reading it for the second time.  “Why would you read a book twice?  Don’t you remember what happened the first time?”  The conversation went downhill from there.

Truth be told, not every art film appeals to me, and I do enjoy movies where things blow up on ten-minute intervals.  But the films that have stayed in my memory the longest have always been those that attempted something fresh, either in a narrative or in a visual sense.  So I find I have an odd assortment of favorite movies: Blade Runner, Star Wars, Adam’s Rib, The Dead, Rear Window, Little Miss Sunshine, and, yes, Die Hard (a thinking man’s action movie), just to name a few.

All of them entertained me and made me think.

Movies for Grown-ups 2

I know, and you probably do, too,  that the box office is currently being burned up by The Hangover Part 2, X-Men: First Class, Pirates of the Carribean, and Bridesmaids.  I will probably get around to seeing some of them, along with the second installment of The Deathly Hallows, this summer.  I am intrigued, however, by three films I’ve heard a good bit about but haven’t yet seen.

The first is Beginners (click on the title for The New York Times review of the film), a semi-autobiographical film by Mike Mills that recounts the story of a 75-year-old man (Christopher Plummer) who comes out as gay to his son (Ewan McGregor) after the death of his wife of 47 years.  The film chronicles the attempt by the son to understand a father he realizes he never really knew, as well as the attempt by the father to reinvent his life in his last few years, before dying of cancer.  I’m a fan of both Plummer and McGregor, and the interviews I’ve heard with Mills have piqued my interest.

The second is Midnight in Paris, the latest film by Woody Allen.  Owen Wilson stars as a Hollywood screenwriter in Paris with his fiancée, played by Rachel McAdams.  Longing for the Paris of the 1920s, Wilson’s character finds himself one rainy night picked up by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  The rest is history—literally the history of the Moderns.  Everyone from Hemingway to Dali to Gertrude Stein walks across the screen.  The film is an homage to Paris, a tongue-in-cheek time travel à la The Purple Rose of Cairo, and a meditation on the power and dangers of nostalgia.  I haven’t seen an Allen film in years, but this one may break my fast.

The third film on my “to-see” list is The Tree of Life, directed by Terence Malick and starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.  It won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—audiences both cheered and booed it.  In his typically strong visual style, Malick tells both the story of a difficult childhood in Texas by Penn’s character and speculates on the origins of life itself.

As far as I know, there are no car chases in any of these, nor do any buildings blow up.  But when you get tired of watching drunk men trying to remember the night before the morning after, or sailing to the ends of the earth with Jack Sparrow, you may be ready for a few films where the story still matters.

Movies for Grown-Ups

With it being one week until the Oscars, there have been a number of interesting news stories related to the kinds of films Hollywood makes, what determines commercial success, and whether there’s any correlation (direct or inverse) between a film’s commercial viability and its artistic merit.

So I’m posting a couple links.  The first is to an article that appeared in The New York Times, “Movies for Grown-Ups Find an Audience.” It points out that there’s an interesting confluence this year between films that have been critically well-received and commercially popular.  Check it out.

Long-Lost Silent Films Turn up in New Zealand

normand There was a great story on NPR this week, reporting the recovery of hundreds of formerly lost films from the first two decades of the twentieth century (including the first surviving film directed by Mabel Normand, pictured).  One of the gems is an early film, Upstream, by John Ford, the director of classics such as Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath.  The story details the work done by the New Zealand Film Archive to identify and preserve these works, long thought destroyed.  This is a real boon to anyone interested in film history.  How long until they become available on DVD?

My Guilty Pleasure: the novels of Carl Hiaasen

I have been waiting for two years for another “fix” from one of my favorite novelists, Carl Hiaasen.  I just visited his website and was delighted to see that his latest novel, Star Carl HiaasenIsland, is due out on July 27.  Here is the blurb on it: “An actress secretly stands in for a derailed pop star and finds herself stalked on South Beach by a crazed paparazzo – and befriended by an unhinged hermit who was once governor of Florida.”

You may have seen the movie Hoot and not known he was the author of the book from which the movie was made.  I love his books because they combine satire, mystery, farce, and social commentary, all at a 60 mph pace.  Plus, they make me a little nostalgic for the five years I lived in South Florida (emphasis on a little).  If you think you might like him, check out his site; it contains descriptions of all his books.  He also links a 60 Minutes interview he did a few years ago.

Star IslandIf you’re heading to Florida for vacation this summer, he makes a good beach read.

“The Hobbit” killed by the Nazguls of Hollywood

The big news this week was Guillermo del Toro’s backing out of directing The Hobbit for Peter Jackson.  Here is a link to the NPR story of his decision.

You can also listen to a conversati0n between NPR’s Steve Inskeep and reporter Kim Marshall in which she explains why such a surefire film as The Hobbit is on indefinite hold: it all has to do with MGM being on life support these days.  I find it ironic that a studio that desperately needs a hit owns the rights to two sure bets (Tolkien and Bond) and can’t get investors for either because of fears of bankruptcy.  Meanwhile, all of the creative energy that has gone into pre-production work on The Hobbit gathers dust on the shelf.  Kinda makes you long for the days when a studio’s biggest fear was sending F.F. Coppola to the Phillipines to make a little inexpensive film about Vietnam.

Observations on Film Art

cover_filmart9_sm One of my favorite film blogs to read is Observations on Film Art, written by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, both of the University of Wisconsin.  What I find refreshing about it is its interest in both low-brow and high-brow cinema, blockbusters and art house films, and I like Bordwell’s interest in exploring the connections between film and other forms of artistic expression, especially literature.  He recently wrote about the structure of narrative in film and its corollary in fiction in the entry, Watching a movie, page by page.  I am using their book, Film Art: An Introduction, in a course I am teaching this fall at Asbury University, Film as Literature.