Take a chance

11 01 2015

Have I mentioned I’m lazy? I think I’ve mentioned I’m lazy.

Not in every aspect of my life, but certainly in too many. One of the more benign, yet highly irritating, forms is my middle-aged-onset laziness with regard to t.v. and movies: I don’t want to watch something in which I don’t know what happens.

This goes beyond not minding spoiler alerts into not wanting to endure uncertainty. I know something’s going to happen, and it about kills me not knowing the what and the when and the how.

I think that’s why I like procedurals: there’s such an established pattern with the plot that any anxiety over what-next is smoothed into mere waiting by the predictability of the genre: in Criminal Minds, for example, there’s the initial crime, then a second crime, then either the nabbing of a third victim (during which clock-ticking the team discovers something from the past) or a failed attempt that gives the team crucial information to identify the guy. Then they find the victim.

Bones had (has) its own pattern, as did Numbers, but they all had/have a pattern. I might roll my eyes at the predictability, but you betcha I rely on it.

That bothers me. Not that I like procedurals—who am I hurting?—but that I’m unwilling to try something else that I might like, might miss a movie which could move me, all because I get so wrapped up in not knowing the what-next that I can’t sit still for the what-is. And even when I am willing to try a new show—Flashpoint, Bletchley Circle, Lie to Me—what are they?


Pitiful. I used to watch so many different types of movies, read so many different types of novels, and while I might still read fiction, it’s not as much as I’d like. I used to enjoy, if not not-knowing, then at least, the getting-to-know or the finding-out. Not knowing was a chance, not a threat.

A little predictability isn’t the worst thing, but so much, too much, makes me feel small. I don’t always need to be big, but I miss the chance.


Stop right there!

17 03 2013

Never happens.

As a fan of adventure/thriller/nuke films (which provenance ought to make clear are always of the B variety), I am willing to leap over any number of realities in order to join the fun, but I do have to retain some belief that there is ground at the takeoff point.

War Games: kid hacks into government computer (believable) and inadvertently starts countdown to nuclear war (leap). Red October: Soviet sub captain seeks to defect (believable) along with innovative tech (ehhh. . .) and American analyst figures this out in time to help him (leap). Peacemaker: corrupt Russian soldiers hijack a ten-pack of nukes to sell (believable) and only the Americans figure this out (ehhh. . .) in time (leap). The Sum of All Fears: Israel loads a nuke onto a plane during the ’73 war, which, after having been shot down, is left to be found 29 years later (skid to a stop at the edge).

The Israelis don’t recover a lost nuke? No. No no no no no no no.

The opening scene already doesn’t make sense—Israel is invaded and overrun, so sends aloft a solo-piloted fighter jet with a nuke, which is shot down when the pilot is distracted by a photo of his family and thus sees a missile too late—not least because no mention is made of the purpose or destination of such a flight. More to the point, that the Israelis would lose track of a nuclear missile and apparently just shrug their shoulders at the loss requires not a leap of faith but a stumble into stupidity.

Of course, once the viewer folds her arms and raises her eyebrows, the rest of the events can only be viewed with snorts.

It’s too bad, really, because loose nukes are a fine premise on which to build a movie; then again, The Sum of All Fears relies yet again on Nazis (Alan Bates, underused; et. al.) as the bad guys, aided by an amoral and cosmopolitan arms dealer (Colm Feore, also underused). This movie was released in 2002: do we still need Nazis as the Big Bads? And are all arms dealers sophisticated foreigners with a chilling accent?

They also stole a line from The Peacemaker (I’m not afraid of the man who wants ten nuclear missiles, colonel. I’m terrified of the man who only wants one):

President: Let’s see, who else has 270,00 nukes for us to worry about?

CIA Director Cabot:  It’s the guy with one I’m worried about.

I did enjoy James Cromwell as the president and Liev Schreiber as an apparently worn-out assassin-spy, and Ciarán Hinds has such a magnificent face how could I not want to watch him? Ben Affleck once again demonstrated his limited skills as an actor, although the role hardly demands anything of interest from him. And Morgan Freeman as Cabot, hell, it’s Morgan Freeman; I originally mistook him as the president.

A waste all around.

The filmmaker would have been better to take the lead from the ridiculous premise and jettisoning any relationship to realipolitik whatsoever. Ditch the Tom Clancy-solemnity and substitute a gleeful malice instead—now that might have been fun to watch.

It’s all about the peace, baby

6 11 2011

I love the move The Peacemaker.

Not as a guilty pleasure, not ironically, not contrari-wise. And no, not (just) because of this guy:

Devoe, Tom Devoe.

Or my general attraction to tormented Eastern Europeans:

Marcel Iureş , as Dušan Gavrić , the man who'd bring the Bosnian war to the US

Nope. I love The Peacemaker because it takes bureaucracy seriously.


Now, no, this is not a documentary and all the usual suspensions of belief—getting information at the last minute, getting out of the car/truck/church just before it goes up in flames/falls off a bridge/explodes—apply, as do the usual tropes of the roguish operative who clashes with the beautiful and smarter-than-he-is woman. It’s a combo spy-action flick, not Godard.

But unlike so many spy-action flicks, the hero and heroine (a likably brittle Nicole Kidman as Dr. Julia Kelly) work for and more importantly within agencies. She’s a part of the Executive Office of the President, thrown into the interim position as adviser to the president on nuclear issues; he’s a lieutenant colonel in the US Army Special Forces, and while both rely upon their wits and experience as they try to prevent 9 Russian nukes from ending up on the open market, their authority is clearly drawn from the positions they hold within their respective agencies.

Kelly discovers that the alleged accidental nuclear explosion was deliberate by looking at spy satellite photos provided by the NSA. Devoe gets information on the corrupt Russian officer from his contacts within government. They fly to Europe on a jet filled with staffers, and Devoe acts on the information he and Kelly find by calling the army and setting up a special op (which he commands, natch).

And then the crucial scene, at the launch site of the special op: three choppers would have to cross Russian air space in order to intercept the nuke-loaded truck before it enters Iran and almost certainly disappears. They can’t do it, however, without authorization. Devoe pushes, says, hey, at least let us get in the air, “it’s only jet fuel”:

Up he goes, to the border, and. . . waits. He waits! He doesn’t do the I’m-a-motherfucking-warrior-god and order the crews across, but sits on the border, however impatiently, waiting for authorization.

Which he gets, of course. Duh. (Around the 6-6:45 minute mark)

Kelly and her team trace payments to an address in Sarajevo, wherein IFOR (the NATO-led Implementation Force operating in the former Yugoslavia)—not some punk kid or homemaker-slash-freedom-fighter freelancer or burned-out ex-spy roused to one last sacrificial act—find Gavrić’s tape explaining his final act.

On the flight back to New York, the team notes that, again, they need authorization to shut down the airports. Once in New York, the military works with the city police to block off traffic (too successfully, as it happens). The team works with airport security to track Yugoslavian passengers, realizing they missed their man when an airport official notes that official delegations do not go through customs. At the hotel where Gavrić is staying, a State Department official cautions that internationally-agreed-upon protocols mean they can’t just barge into delegates’ rooms.

(The hotel scene also provides the biggest groaner of the film: Really, you have a man with a backpack nuke staying there, and you don’t think to cover all entrances and exits—including all elevators?!)

The Department of Energy tracks radiation concentrations, and a special agency (NES?) team is tasked to deal with they nuke. They get stuck in traffic, of course, so it’s up to our heroine to defuse the nuke.

Which she does, just in the nick of time. Of course.

Okay, so not a great movie, and one with more than a few flaws. But it’s grounded movie, one which tries, not always successfully, to remain tethered to political and bureaucratic realities.

And physical realities: In an early scene, Kelly is swimming when summoned to the White House by an officer. The next scene shows her at the office with her hair still wet. Not a big deal, I know, but one which rings truer than a scene in which an adviser to the president takes the time to dry and style her hair before responding to a nuclear emergency.

This is too much for what is, really, just a diverting B-movie, isn’t it? Maybe I am too overcome by Clooney and those tormented Eastern Europeans, and maybe I adore Armin Mueller-Stahl (as a scene-stealing Russian office) just a little too much. And yes, I do have a weakness for nuke movies.

But I also believe in the necessity of government and thus, by extension, of the necessity of the bureaucracy. I get all of the complaints against both—I’ve made more than of few, myself—but if you want government to work then you need agencies within the government to work. You need bureaucracy.

It’s nice to see a movie which gets that.

The monster mash

8 11 2010

Zombies give me nightmares.

Actually, scratch that: zombies onscreen give me nightmares. I read and enjoyed Max Brooks’s World War Z and have sketched out a short ‘story’ (basically, a fake journal article on zombies)  and nary a blip in dreamworld.

But put a zombie where I can see it? Shudder.

I don’t know why. I mean, in 28 Days Later—which jolted me out of my sleep for a week after, and then sent me lurching awake a full six months after viewing—what shocked was not the zombies (and really, not zombies, but rage-virused monsters) but the people. That military commander? The thought that one would become the rape-thing to a bunch of despairing soldiers?

Jesus, at least the monsters were just hungry, not evil.

And in the new show The Walking Dead, again, the forewarning that the problem will be with the people, not the zed-heads.

That’s what set this post off—the premiere to The Walking Dead. I watched it early yesterday evening on Hulu, figuring that gave me enough time before bedtime for me to forget it, but: no.

It wasn’t that scary, honestly, certainly not in comparison to 28 Days Later. And afterward, I thought, Eh.  Too soap-opery, too predictable, too somber, not scary enough. And the lead? Okay, so he needs to wear his sheriff’s outfit to keep himself in line, but is he really this innocent?

Dumb, actually. Or maybe not dumb, but not thinking. He needs gas, all those cars on the road, and he leaves the road to walk some ways to a gas station, which—surprise!—is out of gas.

He never heard of a siphon?

Then he ditches the car in favor of a horse, because, let’s face it, nothing makes more sense than leaving behind a steel-and-glass contained space (with storage!) for a pretty pretty equine bit of zombie bait.

Maybe if it all moved faster, carried some of the jangle that good B-movies like 28 Days Later or even the nausea-inducing Cloverfield managed to convey, I could enjoy rather than pick apart the predictability.

But nightmares for the boring? No thanks.


I should add that I enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, and that since it’s been so long since I’ve seen any of George Romero’s movies, I can’t remember if those gave me nightmares.

Anyway, it’s not just zombies. The Ring creeped me out, and I vowed never to camp in Maryland after The Blair Witch Project. Oh, and I recently made the mistake of watching the mediocre Event Horizon before bed—not a good idea.

I’m not generally a scary- or horror-movie aficionado, and have little patience for spatter movies, but I do enjoy a well-crafted bit of unease. (Okay, enjoy may be the wrong word; appreciate, perhaps?) The Others wasn’t scary, and even a bit somnolent, but I liked its meditative vibe.

The Sixth Sense and Signs? No.

I don’t recall any nightmares following The Road, but, then again, I don’t know that that would count as a horror film. It’s full of horror, true, but perhaps one reason my response was dulled was because I knew nothing would get better. The hope or possibility of escape or reprieve was gone, as with it the altertness that one holds on behalf of the characters. It was the end, that’s all, and I was sad for the characters, that’s all.

I had nuclear nightmares as a teenager, but as I had been experiencing those prior to seeing The Day After or Testament, I blame the miasma rather than the movies.

No, my worst nightmares when young were unrelated to anything I saw on t.v. or at the movie theatre—likely because my parents didn’t let me watch scary flicks. I’d already demonstrated the, ah, ability to scare myself shriekingly awake (Over vents. Don’t ask.), so I’d guess that they thought ‘Why tune her up even more?’

Still, there was that one episode of The Outer Limits, wherein the woman tried to vacuum up something in the corner. . . .

That probably set me off, too.


Still, I’m not eight and I don’t believe in zombies. In fact, I consider nuclear or environmental or even cosmic apocalypse, however unlike in my lifetime, still more likely than a zombiepocalypse. So why the scare at the latter and not the former?

Maybe because I don’t consider it likely at all, and thus don’t have the rational responses to the truly fantastical (the undead) that I do to the merely improbable.

Maybe there’s something about the uncanniness of the zombie: to be dead, but still restless, ravenous, recognizably human but demonstrably not.

Or maybe because I just keep watching these @#$!!$% zombie movies too close to bed. . . .


Waiting for Armageddon

19 05 2010

I do loves me some apocalypse—fictionally.

But actual death and destruction does not make my heart go pitter-pat, unless by ‘pitter-pat’ one means racing-with-anxiety-and-despair-not-joy.

Yeah, I have my moments of ‘fuck ’em all’ and ‘people suck’, but I have no real sense that all humans should perish, or that by large numbers of us perishing the survivors will be redeemed. I don’t think we can be made clean or whole or without all the crap that led us to the apocalypse in the first place. Maybe the survivors would  chomp on one another, a la Cormac McCarthy, or maybe they’d*separate themselves into chosen communities and live-and-let-live; either way, it’s not at all clear to me how this is in any way ‘better’.

(‘*They’, not ‘we’: I have a chronic disease which requires daily treatment; absent that treatment, I die. It’s possible that I could manage to stockpile the thousands of pills necessary to keep me going for years, but I doubt it. The apocalypse will have to go on without me.)

C. and I had a conversation about this the other night, and while I’ll desist saying much about her position beyond noting that she’s more optimistic about post-apoc possibilities than I, I will admit that I was a bit startled by her, mm, cheer.

I am not cheerful about humans, pre- or post-apocalypse. We’re greedy and self-centered and violent and far too willing to use one another for our ends. Sure, we have our good qualities—I happen to like that we figured out how to make wine, chocolate, and a comfy pair of slippers—but we’re not all that.

We are, however, all that we have.

Now, the godly among us might disagree, but except for the  world-hating of the god-believers, most of  the faithful admit there can be joy in the world.

In any case, this is our world: beat-up and weird and so, so complicated and ours. This world is ours, and we are who we are in this world. If this world ends, so do we.

And I think that would be a damned shame—again, not because we’re so great, but because we’re not, because we don’t have to be, because we can be beat-up and weird and so, so complicated. I’m pissed that we’re fucking our world over because in so doing we’re making it increasingly difficult to find out just how we can be human in the world. The possibilities we’re foreclosing. . . .

There are some among us, of course, who do revel in the foreclosure. Some may be secular (extremist environmentalists, for example), but it’s that minority of the godly who look forward to the end-times who grab the bulk of the attention.

Which brings us, belatedly, to Waiting for Armageddon. This short documentary, now streaming on Netflix, follows a group of dispensationalists who are straining at the confines of the world and looking forward to its end—an end which begins in Jerusalem.

It’s basic Bible-prophecy stuff: The in-gathering of the Jews in Israel is foretold in scripture, as is the rebuilding of the Temple, one-world government headed by the anti-Christ (and, for some pre-tribulationists, the early return of Christ), the rapture of the faithful, the tribulation (think ‘great wailing and gnashing of teeth’, ‘four horsemen’, etc.), and the millennial reign of Christ on earth. One hundred forty-four thousand Jews will convert and be saved, while the rest will perish, (along with almost everyone else), all as a prelude to the great cleansing and the springing forth of heaven on earth.

Great, huh? One guy said it was going to be a lot of ‘fun’. Well, y’know, he said, maybe not fun-fun, seeing as how so many will suffer and die horrible, horrible, deaths, but fun in that I was-right-and-I-get-to-watch kind of way.

Whoo-hoo! Totally not at all like the crowds cheering the lions ripping apart the Christians in the Coliseum.

Some of the folks at least managed to be chagrined at the thought of so much death, and most preferred not to dwell on how exactly the Al-Aqsa mosque and al-Haram ash-Sharif complex will be removed without utterly destroying the site of the putative third Temple—but hey, God will take care of all that.

What matters most of all of that these people are right, and if it takes the destruction of the world to prove them in their right[eous]ness, so be it.

Of course, they’d say it’s not about them, it’s about God, that they’re just following the Word. But they’re so God-damned happy about all of this, so God-damned sure that this is The Way, that it’s difficult not to conclude that this is less about God and more about them.

They don’t like the world, and they want to see it end.

Not coincidentally, those who are younger are less avid for The End. They want to marry and have kids and then maybe the end could come, as one young woman said, ‘When I’m 85,’ i.e., when she would end anyway. She doesn’t despise the world quite enough for it to end before she’s had a chance to enjoy it.

These dispensationalists are a minority even among evangelicals, who are themselves not representative of all of Christianity. The film was too short fully to engage cross-Christian talk on The End, nor even those who believe that we are in End Times and are pained by the prospect of the extermination of billions of people.

Instead, we are left with the smiling faces of those who want to see us all end.


9 05 2010

Is it really too much to expect, when I pop a DVD into the computer, that the movie actually be watchable?

Jesus Christ, it’s been over an hour, and I’m still nauseous—and no, not in a French New Wave-existentialist way.

Dirty War

22 02 2010

I love war movies.

Spy movies, dirty tricks, government and intrigue—love ’em!

Can’t say exactly why. Oh, sure, I have this ongoing affair with politics (don’t know why that is, either), but while I enjoyed West Wing and Dave, I don’t swoon for the up-front political movies the way I do for the backstage stuff. Even Bob Roberts, which was more backstage than on-, didn’t turn me on. A good—a very good—movie, but nothing I want to watch over and over again.

Unlike Dirty War. I saw this movie for the first time while living outside of Boston. I didn’t have cable then, either, but I did have a t.v., and PBS broadcast this HBO production over the freewaves.  I think I saw it twice.

Well, now three times, since I just watched the DVD from Netflix. Christ, if this movie streamed, I’d probably watch it once a month.

The set-up is simple: We’re shown nuclear smugglers in central Europe, and cops, fire fighters, government ministers, and terrorists, in London. We see radioactive material smuggled into London, cops trying to track down terrorists cells, a government minister who knows better nonetheless lying so as to reassure the public, and the terrorists themselves, as they meet, assemble the bombs, and prepare to carry out their allegedly divine task.

No, no spoilers here. Watch it for yourself.

Again, I”m not quite sure what the attraction is. The movie is well done, and, to this civilian, utterly plausible. The moviemakers note the research behind the movie, and while I can’t vouch for a smidgen of it, I’m still left thinking Yep, that’s how this could work.

I don’t worry about terrorism on a regular basis. I moved to NYC in 2006, aware that it remains a target, but not terribly concerned about it. I don’t know if it will be hit again, but were I afraid that it would be, I’d have moved somewhere else.

I don’t think of this as denial so much as the same kind of practical calculation that eight million of my neighbors have made. I want to be here, so I am.

Still, there is one possibility which, mmm, tweaks me a bit: the detonation of a dirty bomb.

I was the kid who had nuclear nightmares, who was sure that the world would end before I, well, before I’m the age I am now. This could have been the adolescent impossibility of imagining oneself at middle-age, the morbid outlook of a self-destructive depressive, and/or my rational political concerns mutating into nighttime irrationality.

I don’t have dirty bomb nightmares. But I do think, rationally, that if some group really wanted to fuck over a city, their best bet would be through a detonation of a conventional bomb packed around radioactive material.

A nuke itself would be too hard. Even if a group could manage to get its hands on one, there’s the matter of access to a detonator, as well as that of transport and concealment. Yeah, I remember the material on backpack nukes and worries over uneven security of the nuclear stockpile of various nations, but nuclear weapons, even thousands of nuclear weapons, are still relatively rare things.

What about biologicals? The issue here is one of predictability. Anthrax was used to kill a number of people and frighten a hell of a lot more in 2001 and 2002, but the total number directly affected was relatively few. That’s no comfort to the victims, of course, but as a weapon of mass death, biological agents leave much to be desired.

First, there’s the matter of accessing the biological agent. If it’s controlled, as with smallpox, one has to find a way to get hold of it; if it’s not controlled, one has to find a way to get it and control it before it kills you. Ebola is a nasty disease with a high mortality rate, but it is precisely its nastiness which makes it difficult to handle. Flu is capable of killing tens and even millions of people, but to create a flu like the one which hit the world near the end of WWI requires decent lab facilities and highly trained people—and even that is no guarantee that one could derive a virus both highly transmissible and highly virulent, which could then be released in a maximally controlled manner.

Radioactive material isn’t just scattered like pennies on the streets, but it can be culled from college campuses, hospitals, research facilities, and, of course, nuclear power plants. Further, to make uranium or plutonium suitable for a true nuclear explosion requires extensive processing; the cast-offs from low-grade processing can be used as is.

And it’s use can be controlled. Conventional home-made bombs are apparently not that hard to make (I wouldn’t know, not being the bomb-making or -throwing kind); once the radioactive material has been obtained, you steer your van or boat or truck to the location you want to hit and BOOM. Blast damage, fire, death, and mayhem. And long-term radioactive contamination.

My understanding is that New York City has a very good intelligence network (although in the wake of  the apparently mishandled investigation of Najibullah Zazi, the FBI might disagree), and that agents almost certainly are on alert for any and all kinds of bombs, be they dirty or clean.

So I mostly don’t worry. It’s not that I think the cops and intelligence agencies are infallible—hah!—but given that certainty isn’t possible, the best that can be expected is vigilance. Hell, even with the errors of the Zazi case, they did manage to  stop the guy.

But certainty isn’t possible, and bombs do go off.

It’s this sliver of knowledge that has worked its way deep under my skin. It doesn’t bother me on a daily basis, but sometimes, when a train is stopped too long on its tracks, or I notice all  the trucks in the Financial District or the boats in the harbor, I remember it’s there, and I wonder.

En garde!

19 01 2010

That old bastard Remy had a good death.

Surrounded by friends, at the lake he loved, nourished by old arguments, a last good-bye, and then a heroin slip into the after.

The Barbarian Invasions lacked the cruelty of The Decline of the American Empire, but given that the end was death, not disclosure, the wistfulness was appropriate.

It’s to be said that Remy truly was a rotter: He slept his way through Montreal, allowing his wife to believe he only indulged when travelling. She was true, believing in the best of him, even as he bedded her confidantes.

That’s pretty much the plot, such as it is, of The Decline: friends eating and drinking and divulging and screening their sexual lives.

And Invasions? Twenty years later, and the reprobate is dying in a seedy Montreal hospital, his hostile son spreading money over the layers of bureaucracy in order to procure his father some peace.

And heroin. I mentioned the heroin, didn’t I? It gave Remy peace in his last days of life, then carried him into death.

Not a bad way to go.

I no longer steady myself in plans of my death, but I do, nonetheless, wonder how it will be. Yes, we all die alone, blah blah, but before that last blip, how will it be?

Will there be friends? Wine? Arguments and laughter? Perhaps I’ll die in my sleep, in an apartment or hospital room or on a beach.

Come the apocalypse, well, I live in New York City: if it’s man-made, I’ll burst in the flash or fall choking from the bad air or waste away, abandoned to a pathogen.

But while I may think about this more often than others—and I don’t know if I do, given that American can-do spirit that says we can live forever, so best not to speak of death—I don’t think very long about it.

Not because it’s morbid or sad, but because it’s, mmm, boring. Death’ll come when it comes, and any control I’ll have over it’s arrival will likely be small.

And as for my worries about living my last days alone, the way to guard against that is not to live the rest of my life alone.

So wine and friends and arguments and laughter, now. If I take care of that, the rest will take care of itself.

You got me shakin’ in my go go boots

6 01 2010

for·mi·da·ble /ˈfor-məd-ə-bəl also for-̍mid- or fər-̍mid-\adj [ME, fr. L formidabilis, fr. fordimare to fear, fr. formido fear; akin to Gk mormō she-monster] (15c) 1 : causing fear, dread, or apprehension <a ~ prospect> 2 : having qualities that discourage approach or attack  3 : tending to inspire awe or wonder

It’s a fine word, don’t you think? Tending to inspire awe or wonder—excellent.

And the whole mormō she-monster thing? Perfect!

Which feeds quite nicely into today’s question: Where are all the formidable women in film?

There are a few in politics—hell, just about any woman in politics, left or right, has to be formidable, if she’s to be taken seriously.

No, Sarah Palin is not formidable.

Formidable women all over academia. Good luck getting tenure without having qualities that discourage approach or attack.

But in film?

We had no problems with women of past decades: Rosalind Russell, Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis. Lauren Bacall is still around, but she’s really of a previous era.

But today? S. and I were stumped.

Cate Blanchett, we decided. Perhaps Kate Winslet.

Anne Hathaway could become formidable, depending upon her willingness to withdraw herself.

‘Maybe we just need more actors named Kate,’ S. suggested. We agreed, however, that Kate Hudson was not formidable.

We didn’t quite define formidable, but there was some notion of distance, even regality. Any sexuality couldn’t be too far forward, and any weaknesses not gladly—or at all—discussed.

The sexuality ruled out Susan Sarandon. She keeps her personal life to herself, but even at sixty she can threaten to light others on fire.

Jane Fonda? Too talky about herself.

Oh, and this is problem for contemporary formidability: If the actors are gabbing away on The View or making themselves in any way approachable or, goddess forbid, friendly, forget it. We gotta be a bit afraid.

There are a couple of African-American character actors I can think of who could make me shake in my boots (Jenifer Lewis, Janet Hubert [she played the original mom on Fresh Prince of Bel Air]), but neither is a star.

Maybe Phylicia Rashad, especially since she’s moved to the stage. She’s gotten some distance from Claire Huxtable, but even Claire was less cuddly than Cliff.

I was in the midst of writing this yesterday when my friend T. called.

Perfect timing: T. is a theatre maniac, and watches plenty of movies. She immediately suggested Judi Dench, though I thought she might be too approachable.

Marion Cotillard, she said. Have you seen La Vie En Rose? You have to see it, she said.

Then she mentioned Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren. Oh, yes, I agreed. And Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant. Isabelle Huppert, she suggested.

(Which reminds me: Watch Huit Femmes—a campy delight with Catherine, er, Mesdames Deneuve, Ardant, and Huppert.)

Tilda Swinton scares the hell out of me, though she’s a bit odd, and a bit smug about her oddness.

Miranda Richardson. Perhaps Kristin Scott Thomas.

Of course, all of these women are European, and work for European directors. Might be something to that.

Oh, what about Anne Bancroft, T. said. (Yes! But also of a previous generation.) Or Helena Bonham-Carter. Eh, I said.

Angelina Jolie? Too sexual. And too eccentric (which might also disqualify Bonham-Carter, tho’ T. disagrees).

Shirley MacLaine? Um, that eccentricity thing. . . .

Allison Janey? Perhaps. Bea Arthur? Absolutely!

Audra MacDonald, T. thought. We both sighed a bit over Audra, and I admitted to a bit of a crush on her.

Still, even crushing as I am on Ms. MacDonald is, I don’t know that she can pull off formidable in her personage—tho’ her talent clearly is formidable.

We pondered the effect of the stage: That women who’ve performed in the theatre have learned something about presence which is unique to live performance.

Still, it’s not as if Broadway has gone anywhere, so, again the question: Where are all the formidable women in film?

T. theorized: Because the kinds of movies which are produced today aren’t like the ones which produced a Hepburn or a Russell. T. argued that because women in the forties and fifties were not liberated, i.e., they lived dull lives at home, they wanted something different when they went to the movies. They wanted, even needed, those strong women on screen.

Today, T. shrugged, it’s not necessary, and, more importantly, doesn’t make enough money for the studios to justify making those types of films.

I don’t sign on to all of T.’s sociological analysis—this liberated chickie loves to watch strong women—but I do think there is a connection between the roles and the actors. Maybe—probably—Rosalind Russell was nothing like Auntie Mame or the Mother Superior in The Trouble With Angels, but she was able to occupy fully all the space that those roles allowed, and they allowed a lot of space.

There are still the occasional (American) roles like that—Amanda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, for example—but not much else. (And it’s not as if Meryl Streep cultivates hauteur.)

Joan Allen in The Contender and the Bourne movies?

There’s M—who Dench owns—in the Bond movies. CJ Cregg from The West Wing.

Any other roles which inspire fear and awe? Any other actors who inspire fear and awe?

Or has the era of the formidable woman come and gone? Katie Roiphe had a faintly (tho’ not-quite-wholly) ridiculous piece in recently in the Times on the passing of a particular kind of absurdly virile male; maybe those—is there a distaff version of virile?—female roles have also been exhausted.

Or maybe the mormō just needs to be resurrected. If she’s managed to last a few millenia, why not a few years more?


30 12 2009

I don’t consider myself much of a movie person, but: I am totally groovin’ on Netflix.

Long ago, I watched movies. There were a couple of discount ($2 and $3) movies houses in Minneapolis that my (broke) friends and I would regularly attend, and my friend J. and I spent more than one Friday night wandering around. . . man, what was the name of that independent vid shop on Hennepin? Pandora? Pandemonium? something with a P . . . pulling VHS boxes off the shelves until we hit on something we were both in the mood for. And my friend and departmental director K. would often coax me to one of Montreal’s theatres.

But in Boston? No.

I could blame this on Boston, but, really, I just wasn’t in the mood. Not for years. Even when I lived with Paul in the unmentionable building in Bushwick—P. of the movie-hundreds—I didn’t watch many movies.

New movies, that is. I’d watch any old shit that flitted across cableland (how many times did I watch Independence Day and Peacemaker?), but actually investing myself in an unknown story was not something I cared to do.

But then I told my parents about Netflix, and they got on it and loved it and I thought, Shit, I’m tellin’ other people to do this, and I still can’t be bothered?

And I’m totally digging it.

It helps that I can watch it on my nifty external monitor (thanks for the Xmas $, mom and pop!), and I think that I have to go through this little ritual of maneuvering the monitor into place (I don’t use it for regular web surfing or writing), pulling my comfy chair forward, and dimming the lights, sets the mood.

I’ve also seen some good, really good, and even great, movies: A Christmas Tale. Blue. Let the Right One In. The Lives of Others (my favorite thus far). Rachel Getting Married. SerenityAway We Go.

I thought Syriana and Duplicity were only okay, but I don’t feel like I wasted my time in watching them.

And I watched a couple of old favorites—Hopscotch, Sneakers—as well as happily re-rotted my brain zipping through Armageddon and Notting Hill.

I think two things make Netflix work for me: One, the streaming. I was unwilling to pony up the dollars for cable, but had maintained that if I could get decent, limited cable or movie coverage for 10 bucks or so a month, I’d do it. Et voila: movies on demand and via mail, for under 10 bucks a month.

The second are the queues. I can find movies I want to watch at some point, and drag them into line. I don’t have to keep lists (as with books, which are on scattered bits of paper everywhere) on a movie I think I’d like, or might want to watch at some point when I’m in the mood for that sort of thing, but can plunk it into my queue and not worry about it.

It’d be nice if they had a search by-subject or keywords, but what search they do have is all right.

Anyway, this is an appreciation of Netflix, not a love song. (The usual demurral: brand-loyalty-is-for-suckers.)

And the appreciation is secondary, because, really, this is a love song to movies. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed dipping into another fully-formed reality, how much stories and characters and lives could affect me so much.

I think I stopped watching movies both because they could affect me so much, and so often, they didn’t affect me at all.

It’s nice, just to come back to that, that affect—affection. Yes.