Monthly Archives: January 2010

No heart

A few grace notes aside — Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) emptying an orange juice carton of his own urine; the scarily accurate fourth-rate bowling alley updated with an incongruously garish, modern bar; the way Robert Duvall handles a fishing pole; the relief that floods over Bridges when he meets a keyboardist with real promise¬† — Crazy Heart feels too familiar, too slack, too earnest about Bridges’ down and out country singer’s “journey.” The AA colony Bridges joins looks like a ski lodge, and when Duvall picks him up at the end of his stay I thought he’d dropped him last Friday. I’m also pretty tired of using kids as cute ol’ things who exist solely as objects of suspense. While Maggie Gyllenhaal has never been better lit or been shrewder about deploying her habit of spacing out words when given a line requiring some complexity, I didn’t believe her for a second as a “reporter” or a critic; and while I know guys have written and directed most screenplays since D.W. Griffith, you’d think they’d realize eventually that no one believes a beautiful woman like Gyllenhaal would fuck, much less love, a man as scuzzy — twenty years (at least) her senior! — as Blake. Finally, the country soundtrack sounds like someone’s idea of country. I believed Gyllenhaal when she remarked, awestruck, that it took Bad Blake a few minutes to compose what it took other songwriters years; co-film producer/composer T-Bone Burnett’s assembly-line rhymes and boring chord changes probably took him a few minutes too, and wouldn’t have gotten him a ticket out of the bowling alley circuit.

I’ve a habit when watching a boring movie: I switch actors and points of emphases. If Crazy Heart really sought a heart, it would have concentrated on Colin Farrell’s glib but thoroughly decent hotshot star (I took him to be a Tim McGraw or Rodney Crowell type), honest about his debt to Bad Blake and generous about sharing the spotlight, but tired too of having to bail out his sorry ass with second-rate bourbon and publishing royalties. A concert scene in which Farrell insists that Bridgers share his mic generates real tension; the camera, taking its cue from Bridges’ wary, begrudging focus on Farrell,¬† circles the actors tentatively. Still, if Jeff Bridges — one of three or four most consistently interesting actors of both sexes of the last forty years — is gonna get his Oscar, he can do worse than pretend he’s in The Wrestler II: Mickey Goes West. His Dude from The Big Lebowski is a funnier scuzzball, but you know, the Academy doesn’t “do” comedy. The best performance in Crazy Heart, actually, is Duvall’s. In a few economical strokes he creates a man who’s put up with a lot of shit and will cheerfully put up with more for a friend’s sake, but try to take his bar — his livelihood — away and he’ll tear your ass open. It takes Duvall seconds. Think Bad Blake’s got that kind of talent?

2009: Best Films

Rather late, but I needed to catch up on a couple more films; in the case of Bright Star, I’m very glad I did. I’m not comfortable with the results, particularly the high showing for Inglorious Basterds, but my ambivalences aside, I can’t shake how well its good sequences play, and how audacious and stupid (stupidly audacious?) the rest is. Nick Davis said it best:¬† it’s a moviee whose barely tempered sadism, its uneven performances and compositional rigor, and its alternations between taut and slack montage” make your teeth grind. “Now, faced with how indelible the best parts of this movie are by the end of 2009, when the best sequences of so many movies I roundly preferred have already started to fade, it became even harder to square my begrudging esteem from my visceral dislike of the movie and its politics.”

As for my two favorite love stories of the year, they underscore the importance of gesture, restraint, and silence in framing: Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow in Two Lovers, and Abbie Cornish and Billy Whishaw in Bright Star (the camera catching Cornish regarding Whishaw’s ink-stained hand in the dusty light is the erotic moment of the year).

I’ve reviewed most of these films, so use the search entry.

1. The Hurt Locker

2. Summer Hours

3. Inglorious Basterds

4. Drag Me to Hell

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox

6. The Class

7. A Serious Man

8. Two Lovers

9. Bright Star

10. The Girlfriend Experience

A man of letters: Louis Auchincloss R.I.P.

He was so compulsive a writer that after completing the Roosevelt book, he showed up unannounced at the offices of his publisher with a finished text for Calvin Coolidge, only to be told the president’s life had been assigned to someone else.

Pace the AP’s obituary on Louis Auchincloss, dead at ninety-two. Gore Vidal’s appraisal, written in the mid seventies, piqued my interest a few years ago, sending me towards his Collected Stories, still the best introduction to his work; you’ll know whether to keep going. Complaints about novelists and musicians “repeating themselves” puzzle me. Upon discovering their metier, good writers refine, excise, experiment. Great writers, like Auchincloss’ beloved Edith Wharton (with whom he shared a passion for delineating the exploits of rich, horrible northeasterners), discover new shades, change sympathy, modulate their attitude towards the material. Auchincloss wasn’t a great writer though. The Rector of Julian is justly acclaimed, but the likes of East Side Story and The Education of Oscar Fairfax boast fusty plots, failed attempts at witty dialogue (great writers listen closely to how people of their class talk; good ones too), and misshapen forms. Auchincloss admires brevity; from what I know his oeuvre hides no four hundred-page monsters. But brevity without insight looks an awful lot like languor. Many times he can’t be bothered with fruitfully developing a situation he’s created. I’ll gladly take recommendations from his (vast) catalogue.

But what a life though: he published when he wanted and, apparently, whatever he wanted. Essay collections (consistently elegant and sharply observed), biographies of presidents and writers, including an excellent and very useful one on Wharton, casual observations, history — Auchincloss may have been the last genuine American man of letters. He wrote because he felt like it, and because his class and education imposed a duty, much like other men with his background — the Stimsons, Harrimans, and Bohlens of the world — entered diplomacy.