Generically Speaking: The Snoozefest That Is Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Just so you know: Mr. and Mrs. Smith really is stone-cold shite. I can understand the compulsion to see it if only to gauge firsthand whether or not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were truly making it. (Answer: Does a scientologist proselytize on a subway?) But be forewarned: When the film ended, I wanted my two hours back. I could have used them to, like, clean my cupboards or something.

The film, about two married assassins unaware of each other’s identity, buckles under the weight of:

A. Angelina Jolie’s acting. It’s not like Pitt didn’t stink up the joint — he barely dipped into his bag of tics to shuffle through this little conceit — but he comes off as Olivier next to her mannequantics. She really did deserve the Oscar for her performance in Girl, Interrupted, but it may be that she was merely mining her true personality structure. Since then, she’s admittedly chosen shoddy vehicles, but she has been shoddy in them; it’s hard to tell where her Lara Croft ends and the Craft action figure begins. (They’re both very waxy.) With her pneumatic features and impossibly long, tapered limbs, Jolie is always easy on the eyes in a way that invites the projection of all kinds of wisdom and wryness upon her. But since I don’t actively want to fuck her (critics who do vascillate between punishing her for it and grossly overlooking her limitations), I can’t help but observe how woodenly she preens for the camera. I challenge Jolie to hold a weapon without lowering her lids and pimping out her lips. And she is supposed to be Hollywood’s stock temptress these days — possibly because her breasts seem real. What dire, Dairy Queen days these are.

B. An interfering soundtrack. To the point where the movie would suddenly stop in its tracks and convert for the duration of a song into a music video. I am more stringent on this point than some, but I don’t think a film should ever take its cues from its music; it’s an awful cheat for conveying information or an emotional development. In Smith, I could close my eyes and known exactly when the fighting stopped and the lovin’ began. It was easier, actually; when I can see it, the flexing of Jolie’s lips educes a dying fish rather than a woman in love.

C. A too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen script, which, as usual, robbed the film of any coherence. For example, why does it matter so much that two assassins live under one roof? And does it really matter so much that an entire army of assassins would be sent out to kill them? And where do the two place on the assassin food chain? Why don’t they experience any fallout from being assassins? Who contracts them? And why if they are so smart do they never figure out each other’s identity, especially since they’re in the same field? Did the script-writing sessions take place in the kind of sweaty sensory deprivation tanks that Michael Jackson’s jurors must currently be beating their heads against? The script would have benefited from either better developed gags or higher stakes. (With The Bourne Identity and Swingers under his belt, director Douglas Liman certainly has both a better action movie and comedy in him.) It would have benefited, in other words, from a committment rather than a story-by-consensus. As it was, what should have been the climatic ending just about dribbled to a stop.

The best thing about this film is the Smiths’ kitchen, all steel and marble and (naturally) very good knives. Maybe the Iron Chef would have spiced things up. We would have needed Vincent Vaughn moonlighting as a homicidal momma’s boy to make it worse. Doh.

A Critic’s Manifesto (West Coast Notes)

I must confess I’ve fallen into a bit of a funk lately, which is pure and simple why I’ve not been posting. (Nay, it wasn’t just because The L Word dashed our every hope.) It’s the “what’s it all about, Alfie?” cinennui that keeps hitting me below the belt, coupled with the precariousness of an underemployment.

I’ve been seriously taking stock of all and sundry in my life. Of the relevance of chiming my own voice in the cacophony of the cultural conversation already chattering. Obviously this sounds like the roaring of depression’s ugly head, but if it is, it ain’t just that. There really does exist an oversaturation right now of critical voices, partly thanks to the Internet — even it is a technology that has democratized the dispensation of information.

In some ways.

I’m out on the West Coast right now again, shedding some Pacifica light on my dusty and dull Easterly woes. As usual, I’m charmed beyond reason by the many missing pieces of the movie industry jigsaw that LA offers up with a big ole glass of watermelon juice. I’ve met Álex de la Iglesia, a Spanish filmmaker who pretty much comes second only to Pedro Almodóvar (pronounced AlmoDOvar here) in his own country but has received US scanty distribution even on DVD. I nervously coffee-klatsched with a group of older, bombastically funny old Hollywood types, including Paul Mazursky. I’ve drunk good wine in a studio bigwig’s backyard while the very future of the movie business was shoptalked. And one point that’s repeatedly been made is that new computer and television-viewing (Pay Per View, TIVO) technology threatens to derail the movie business as we know it.

Which has set me thinking about who really does benefit from all this new technology. When I ride the subway in Brooklyn, it’s mostly the American Apparel set and the lost-youth professionals who wield IPods, for example. The rest still carry CD walkmen, which now appear as bulky as the laptop I bought only three years ago. I try to imagine what steps it would take to bring the CD stragglers up to speed, and I feel overwhelmed for them. It doesn’t just entail IPods and computers and Internet access. It also entails a comfort level with the technology, which in turn entails education in addition to the necessary equipment.

I mention this because those of us who write about culture are in danger of only preaching to the choir — comprised, in this case, of each other.

The summer’s downslide in movie revenue has sparked a lot of conjecture about the habits and proclivities of the American viewing public, and those conversations have revealed critics’ assumptions. In his recent two cents on the subject, for example, Times critic AO Scott dismisses the worth of most recent movies by saying, “They will each show up eventually…on the transcontinental flight when your iPod battery is dead and you’ve forgotten to pick up the latest issue of Vanity Fair.” That’s a pretty specific population that Mr. Tony is identifying there, one that, I’m willing to guess, doesn’t comprise the bulk of American moviegoers, even those who daily read the Times.

Being downright poor right now — the brokest I’ve been since I worked in the labor movement — I’m reminded of how paralyzing serious financial concerns really can be. I’m cognizant that given my education and community, I’m in a good place compared to many people in the US. (At that, most everybody in the US is in a fantastic place compared to many other parts of the world.) But not matter what, being this broke makes you doubt not only your self-worth but also your future. It’s hard to make plans in good faith when money is required to implement every step toward those goals, no matter how modest. Gas money, interview clothes money, daycare money: For lower-income people avoiding credit card debt or who aren’t even eligible for a credit card, the basic expenses of life loom painfully large.

Under those auspices, art is a necessary luxury. We need something to help us feel better, to both inspire us and to provide us a sense of community. And the role of critics in that equation is less esoteric than you’d think: We’re filters. We help connect a creation with an audience, help separate the cream from the crap. We can point people toward work that wakes them up rather than numbs them further.

In a conversation I had this week with Benoît Jutras, the Cirque de Soleil scorer, he mentioned something interesting. As a composer who began in the wildly esoteric community of contemporary classical music and now scores music for a truly mass audience, Jutras says the transition taught him that creations require perceivers. “Audiences complete the circle of creation,” he intones. So no matter what, he tries to be respectful of his audiences. Ideally, he wants his music to not only really reach listeners but to also take them a few steps past their comfort zone. (Along these lines, he is, admittedly, moving on from Cirque, at least for the time being.)

It’s a goal for critics, too.

Since I’ve been scurrying up and down this funny coast (this week I’m at the Seattle International Film Festival), I’ve had a chance to revisit how many different ways film (and television) fit into people’s lives. When traveling I realize just how dangerous it is to suppose anything about audiences because it’s clear how varied Americans still are, even with the mallification of the US. In fact, we are moving from that infernal melting pot toward a (tuna) niche salad these days, one in which critics take on an even greater importance because it falls on us to serve as guides.

That shift makes it particularly dangerous to write from any perspective other than my own. “I,” rather than “they” or “you” (sorry, Pauline Kael), is more useful and infinitely less condescending. Only by being clear on what I like and don’t like — reacting from my gut rather than to demographic suppositions or to the community of other critics — can I speak honestly and extemporaneously enough to be worth heeding. But on the other hand, I can’t assume that the persons I’m writing to are exactly like me. It’s just that the more specific I am, the more universal I can be; that way people can know who they are working with and what they are heeding. A translation is required, and I would argue that it is that translation which completes the circle between critic and audience.

So what does that translation entail, concretely? It requires less of the old boy’s club chasing their own tails and comparing the size of their, uh, pens, for one. We need new blood and new voices that specify where they’re coming from but never misconstrue those contexts as universal. We have to stop approaching films as mere fodder for potential catchy leads or trends to identify before our peers do (though humorectomists need not apply). It means that we should only include NY-LA industry buzz when it speaks to something larger than itself. And although this in some way contradicts what I am saying about being honest about your own perspective, we also do owe both films and audiences what they call in yoga circles “beginner’s mind,” no matter how many screenings we have sat through. When we’re so stifled by cinennui that we can only perceive a film through the lens of other films, maybe it’s time to take a sabbatical.

That said, my own cinnennui is lifting. I do want to get my voice out there right now, if for no other reason that I still really love films and really do think they articulate and ameliorate the modern human condition in all kinds of ways. I’m going to start posting more again. To highlight on this blog more of the films that I see, especially the amazing features that rarely achieve nationwide distribution (especially foreign language features). To include more interviews with filmmakers to raise the Wizard’s curtain. And I’m going to try, for a change, to get out of my own way. It’s time to see the forest and the trees.

And Then Sunday Night Fell Silent (The L Word Season 2 IM Postmortem)

Starring: jostle, aka Jocelyn, flavorpill queen and a true Lesbian Science Theater 3000 partner-in-crime; liser, aka me.

I leave our exchange fairly unadulterated (and promise to post something more substantive soon) so if you aren’t familiar with the show, we doth duly apologize.

jostle: guten morgen
jostle: i just ate a sprouted bagel with.. yeast!!!
jostle: which segs nicely into a lezbo discussion
liser: or concussion
liser: Ok, basically, we’re having an IM convo that wraps up Season 2 of The L Word, which we had, I think it’s safe to say, hotly anticipated
jostle: right up until we heard the new theme song
liser: exactly. someone let the fact they were getting some get in the way of taste when it came to using BETTY for the theme song
jostle: in what started to seem like every scene of every episode
liser: Betty was Where’s Waldo
jostle: i think Waldo’s cuter
liser: Better fashion, for sure
liser: Anyway, cheesy theme song….
liser: cheesy Season 2
jostle: yes, i think it took a little while to sink in, say about halfway through, but then we started to recognize that the show was in a serious sophomore slump.
liser: it got progressively worse the whole season
liser: we should disclose that we spent weeks before the new season began watching Season 1 on DVD. It got us through the February snow ambush and I do mean bush…
jostle: indeed
liser: so we were not inclined to acknowledge at first how crap the show got in Season 2
jostle: when the season commenced, we were all taken in by the wondrous transformation of Jenny Schechter, the sexed-up, annoying tree sprite to Jenny, the actually really hot, nearly lovable character, but that was about the only real exciting development
liser: yeah, Jenny didn’t suck for about three episodes
jostle: and then she headed into a self-reflexive women’s issue martyr role
jostle: i can’t remember. did she adopt some Christ-like poses during those final strip scenes? it seems highly possible
liser: you know, she’s a Jew so it was more like Survivor Syndrome chic than Christ at the Cross
liser: it’s like being jewish is the most exotic character trait ever seen
jostle: as you said, the fetishization of judaism
liser: But you’re right. it’s hard to remember now, but we had higher hopes in the beginning of the season
liser: Jenny had a spine
liser: Tina was pregnant and really mad at Bette so she had a spine while Bette was eating the crow
liser: which meant that Tina wasn’t just speaking in her weird, wheedling voice and Tina was!
jostle: Carmen was still almost hot
jostle: Alice wasn’t pathetic
liser: and Dana was still pathetic, just like we like her!
liser: Shane was still a lothario
liser: all was as it should be
jostle: one thing that occurred to me recently is that the primary problem was that they actually wrote themselves into a corner
jostle: almost all of the characters became one-dimensional
jostle: once out of the closet, what did Dana have to offer as a character?
jostle: judging by Season 2, nothing really. just someone who was uncomfortable with sex toys
jostle: once in a relationship with Dana, Alice lost all her humor and her spine, plus any confidante to reveal another side of her personality other than the co-dependent girlfriend
liser: they’d spend the whole of two episodes on Shane’s career and then drop it
jostle: yeah, what happened to the producer bitch?!
liser: and none of the characters related to each other anymore. It says a lot that neither of the two new characters had any dimensions
jostle: Carmen was never a character, more like a cardboard cut-out used to play other characters off each other. or a dj’ing vehicle
jostle: Helena began and remained a rich brat with a fetish for pregnant women
jostle: which didn’t change at all when she was confronted by her mother in what should have been a somewhat climactic scene
liser: the fetish for pregnant woman is so Remedial Freud
liser: Mommy wasn’t around. so…
jostle: I think they had the least well-hung cliffhanger i’ve ever seen
liser: i know. such dimension!
jostle: i mean, when Shane finally says i love you to Carmen–which was supposed to be huge–you have no idea why she’d even be attracted to her, nor do we ever get any kind of reaction shot from Carmen or hear anything from her!
jostle: weighty, dying father plot and all, Bette was the only one who really remained an interesting character throughout Season 2, and went somewhere
jostle: we’ll have to await Season 3 to see if they just blew their wad, so to speak, in Season 1
liser: their oh-so proverbial wad
liser: what makes it so much worse now? the show was still kind of bad, but it was enormously fun to watch and to talk back to
jostle: a) less sex!
jostle: i would say Season 2 had about 75% less sex
liser: b) too many plotlines randomly abandoned
jostle: ding!
jostle: how about? no real plotlines that stuck throughout the whole season?
liser: and the star cameos were nighmarish. they were just abrupt interruptions
liser: right
jostle: c) heavyhanded treatment of ISSUES
jostle: d) introduction of another lame and/or evil straight guy
jostle: guess what ladies? they’re not all bad, and it’s kind of boring to imply that
liser: ruth, you speak the truth
liser: it’d be a Better use of the straight guy if he was just a hapless but supportive sidekick
liser: like the gay man in romantic comedies
jostle: eggzachary
jostle: having ruminated upon it more, i think that the loss of Marina was a big blow to Season 2
jostle: she was sort of the Yani to Shane’s yang
jostle: and someone who wasn’t really in the inner circle, so to speak
liser: if you’re going to have more than a certain amount of main characters, it results in a superficial, soaplike treatment of all them. Better to have a limited amount and then some blatantly minor ones
liser: Marina was a perfect minor character
liser: interesting to look at and visit with but not as important so she wasn’t a competing plotline. They knew which cog she was!
jostle: the whole Season 2 played like they just hadn’t really mapped it out in advance, as if there were too many cooks in the Kitchen, all being really supportive of one another’s ideas in a really unhelpful, destructive way
liser: typical lezobots!
jostle: can i take this metaphor further?
liser: take it further, sister
jostle: the season two climax was all lesbian bed-death
liser: Shane:
jostle: it’s interesting. once she started to downshift out of Lothario mode early Season 2…
liser: she became almost as bad as Jenny
liser: she had this big freakout when her big studio boss tried to get with her
jostle: “everybody needs something from me!”
liser: and then she went to confession
liser: and then she was doing all the drugs
jostle: oh that was the WORST
jostle: the oxycontin freakout music?!
jostle: her character became so unmoored they had to start playing music that whispered SHANE SHANE SHANE in the background when she was fucking just to remind us where we were
liser: (the music in general:)
liser: (wet wet wet wet)
jostle: omigoodness i almost forgot about when she brought the twins home! twins! Twins!
jostle: (twins twins twins)
liser: i forgot about dem twins
jostle: (bed-death bed-death bed-death)
liser: that’s so hot!
jostle: it was like a porn soundtrack to heat things up when they really weren’t building them up properly
liser: we liked Shane before because she was a little tragic but had an understated wit about it
jostle: too true.
liser: maybe moving in with Jenny was a bad influence on her
jostle: Or Season 2 just ran her through the issue wringer
jostle: “have i ever really loved anyone?”
jostle: “where am i going with my life?”
liser: “has anyone ever really loved me….for me?”
liser: and
jostle: “what’s my fashion like?”
liser: “I LIKE TIES!”
jostle: “why don’t i wear glasses anymore?”
liser: the thing is, i don’t expect L Word to cover every issue and person in the lesbian community
liser: but i think that the L Word tries to
jostle: they do have a show to run and it ain’t ELLEN
jostle: if only it were.. then it’d be funnier
jostle: (worse dancing tho)
liser: it’s like a 14 year old who wants to tackle all the issues but you know like still be cool wrote this season
jostle: i think that 14 year old lives in Jenny’s pink room
liser: it had an unpleasant makeshift qualiity where if it was a liittle worse we could laugh at it and it if was a little Better we could relax into just viewing as lesbian Dynasty
jostle: well put
jostle: you knew it was bad when i looked up at the clock during the cliffhanger and was sad to see only 20 min. had passed
liser: it was like being held hostage at the bad play of a friend who is going to quit acting next year and go to law school in a few years so what’s the point of sitting through it in that drafty theater that smells like old cheese?
jostle: maybe shane should just get her own spinoff, like the hair salon she never had: SHANE
liser: i’d get my hair cut there any day
liser: if you catch my drift…
jostle: oh dear
liser: will we even watch season 3?
jostle: i think we have to see if it was just a sophomore slump, to see if they can pull it back together
jostle: really the end of Season 2 left me cold, but you never know
jostle: we know they’ve got new writers…
liser: yeah, but that’s what is weird. they always have good people connected to the show
liser: the directors list alone is nutso
liser: ernest dickerson, lisa cholodenko, etc
jostle: true
liser: yes, but the writing has a little too much Go Fish influence
jostle: INDEED
jostle: let’s put our heads together and lay on the floor and talk issues
jostle: i dug Guinevere Turner’s cameos on the show tho
liser: she’s a Bette-r actress than writer
liser: but i guess because she is a big old out lesbian and not uber gorgeous she ends up writing more than she acts
liser: but when she writes, lordy, the hand it is heavy
jostle: well, if Season 3 doesn’t pan out Dynasty is available on DVD now
liser: we could just turn off the sound and rename the characters with L Word character names
jostle: shane= blake carrington
liser: ok, final list
liser: different ways to spice up L word sex
liser: tantric sex
jostle: i think we’re in need of a friend three-way mayhaps?
jostle: Kit getting it on with a lady? mmmaybe Ivan is coming back
liser: Jenny should stay celibate from now on, though
jostle: she should at least let someone else remove her clothes once in awhile
jostle: i’m tired of the tit flash
liser: no more urine sex
jostle: HA! what WAS that???
jostle: no more shower sex
liser: ladies, in general golden showers are not so golden
liser: and on that note, my friend. i think we have put this baby out with the bathwater
jostle: baby angelica’s out of here!

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy