Terms of mistreatment: 50/50

Directed by Jonathan Levine from a script based on true life by Will Reiser, 50/50 is the sort of movie in which scenes gleam like newly minted clichés. A morning scene between Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, henceforth known as JGL) and girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) emits the kind of domestic tranquility created so that the filmmakers can subvert it in a few minutes. We know that as soon as Rachel lays her toothbrush down and gets her hand out of Adam’s ass that (a) a Biblical plague will descend upon him (b) his girlfriend will do Something Terrible to him because men wrote and directed the script.

Thanks to his uncanny talent for projecting conflicted emotions through a Noh Mask of inflexibility, JGL is the most fortuitous casting choice; he’s incapable of a sentimental gesture or false note, unlike 50/50 itself. Whimsy, the first resort of the chowderhead, dominates. When Anna Kendrick as a counselor clears her throat and fumbles through feel-good patter (e.g. “From what I understand it’s really rough. But it will pass”), that’s the end of her performance; she plays New Age Music, as if to underline the point. JGL, reluctantly accepting a pot brownie from Philip Baker Hall, wanders down hospital corridors with an idiotic grin to the accompaniment of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.” As for Seth Rogen, his riffs on blowjobs and abstract art, his token allusion to a historical figure outside the audience’s purview (Gorbachev and his tattoo) — if you laugh at this point, have fun. But there’s a sinister side to the male gaze. With his liberal use of “cunt” and “whore,” Rogen teases the audience’s baser instincts before Levine and Reiser gratify these macho fuckwads by exposing Rachel as a nattering, cheating airhead. Besides one emphatic exchange he isn’t even given the dignity of having a complex reaction to her boyfriend’s undoubted terminal diagnosis.

At least the makers allow Angelica Huston a chance to breathe as Adam’s devastated mother. Taking the audience back to her shattered, drunken amble through grief in 1995’s The Crossing Guard, Huston stops the movie cold the second that JGL snuggles up to her for a hug. But playing an archetype with which men are comfortable, she doesn’t startle; the leash won’t stretch that far. Levine doesn’t suggest why Adam might be wrong about keeping his mother at arm’s length for three quarters of the running time; he raises and dismisses the suspicion with a flurry of tears and Kleenex.

Will it get better?

RAVI: Did you tell them we did it on purpose?
WEI: Yeah . . well that we didn’t know
what we were gonna see
Where is tyler . .
RAVI: Because I said we were just messing around with the camera. He told me he wanted to have a friend over and I didn’t realize they wanted to be all private.
WEI: Omg dharun why didnt u talk to me first i told them everything

A text conversation between Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the former charged with nvasion of privacy, bias intimidation, witness tampering, and evidence tampering in the suicide of Tyler Clementi in the fall of 2010, excerpted from Ian Parker’s New Yorker article. Ravi faces five to ten years in prison.

I know many students like Ravi. None fit the profile of Bully or Evil Men passed down from years of television and movie watching or comic book reading. Getting them to understand their moral blindness and lack of curiosity is the battle before us. It begins with smaller skirmishes; as many columnists and bloggers said at the time, removing “fag” and “gay’ from the conversation as signifiers of weakness and effeminacy is a start. The other, critical battle lies in reminding the teens who grew up in a world in which the meaning of privacy is being continuously redefined what they’ll accept as immoral behavior.

Cynthia Nixon: more right than bright

Frank Bruni:

Among adults, the right to love whom you’re moved to love — and to express it through sex and maybe, yes, marriage — is surely as vital to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a Glock. And it’s a lot less likely to cause injury, if that’s a deciding factor: how a person’s actions affect the community around him or her.

I USE the words “moved to love” in an effort to define the significant, important territory between “born this way” and choice. That solid ground covers “built this way,” “oriented this way,” and “evolved this way”; it incorporates the possibility of a potent biological predisposition mingling with other factors beyond anyone’s ready control; and it probably applies to Nixon herself.

“Nixon” is Cynthia Nixon, who upset people on the Internet who care about such things for treating sexuality in a flippant manner. To which I respond: Yay! But well-meaning gay liberals, protecting the lives they’ve created, view Nixon’s remarks as a threat: if sexuality looks like a “choice,” then opponents to gay rights have a stronger case.

If humans have made any progress the last hundred years it’s dismissing the implications of determinism. What offends opponents is ambiguity, not clarity. Identity is as recombinant as DNA. Embracing its inherent frivolity adduces our commitment to treating existence as seriously as so-called heterosexuals.

Method to his madness: A Dangerous Method

The immediate pleasure offered by A Dangerous Method is literate dialogue. Adapting his own play, Christopher Hampton makes Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) not a pillar so much as a stalk of rectitude and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) a droll ironist addicted to cigars and ascending octaves. A reputation for gore, high-toned or otherwise, has shadowed David Cronenberg’s talent for rendering jargon, the excitement of meeting another person who understands you. He makes scientific badinage kinky. Like Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, and William Lee in Naked Lunch, Fassbender is attracted to a female partner’s sympathy and professional intelligence, here represented by neurotic and future psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein and played by Keira Knightley. After an uneasy start, in which she writhes and aims her jutting lantern jaw at any moving target in the Oscar-honored manner of playing wacko women, Knightley actually improves: I could believe that she would meet Jung on a bench in Vienna to swap theories about the connections between sex and death.

A good thing too, for I didn’t feel the supposed warmth between Jung and Freud to which their letters allude. For every smart editing choice (i.e. cutting from Knightly’s astonishment at seeing hymeneal blood on white sheets to Jung’s family playing in his plush quarters), Cronenberg elides much. A Dangerous Method could have benefited from an extra half hour or three quarters of an hour. Why do Hampton and Cronenberg make such a fuss about Freud and Jung’s trip to America only to film two scenes aboard ship? Why does their friendship fray when we’re barely introduced to them? One of the film’s strengths is its unsentimentality about human relations. Barely a personal remark passes between Freud and Jung. The latter’s wife Emma (a subtle Sarah Gadon) tolerates his philandering as long as he keeps her pregnant. But Cronenberg and Hampton haven’t thought through this paradox. A Dangerous Mind just stops. Still, it’s a movie of smart, quiet grace, none more so than when Mortensen’s Freud, easing back into his leather chair, surrounded by African kitsch, drinks in his young colleague’s flattery like aged port.

Singles 1/27

In which Faith Hill and Jason Mraz outscore The Shins and Nicki Minaj’s latest collaboration.

Songs graded on a ten-point scale. Click on links for reviews.

Faith Hill – Come Home (6)
Nicki Minaj – Stupid Hoe (6)
Jason Mraz – I Won’t Give Up (5)
The Shins – Simple Song (5)
Tyga – Rack City (5)
B.o.B ft. Andre 3000 – Play the Guitar (4)
Wonder Girls – The DJ Is Mine (4)
Nelly ft. T.I. and 2 Chainz – Country Ass Nigga (4)
The Maccabees – Pelican (2)
50 Cent ft. Tony Yayo – I Just Wanna (2)
DJ Fresh ft. Rita Ora – Hot Right Now (2)
David Guetta ft. Nicki Minaj – Turn Me On (1)

On growing old


Donald Hall’s brief threnody on aging has the cracked-bark fragility of a late Wallace Stevens poem:

Each season, the writer’s balance gets worse, and sometimes he falls. He no longer cooks for himself but microwaves widower food, mostly Stouffer’s. If he flies to do a poetry reading, his dear companion Linda, who lives an hour away, must wheelchair him through airport and security. New poems no longer come to him. Generation after generation, his family’s old people sat at this window to watch the year. There are beds in this house where babies were born, where the same babies died eighty years later. After a life of loving the old, by natural law the writer turned old himself. Decades followed each other and then came his cancers, Jane’s death, and over the years he travelled to another universe. However alert we are, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying, but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial.

Romney: a virtual parody of an inauthentic politician

A week late but worth linking: what Mitt Romney learned from his dad George, a vigorous philanthropist who marched with Martin Luther King’s followers in Selma, Alabama. Rick Perlstein:

When people call his son the “Rombot,” think about that: Mitt learned at an impressionable age that in politics, authenticity kills. Heeding the lesson of his father’s fall, he became a virtual parody of an inauthentic politician. In 1994 he ran for senate to Ted Kennedy’s left on gay rights; as governor, of course, he installed the dreaded individual mandate into Massachusetts’ healthcare system. Then he raced to the right to run for president.

He’s still inauthentic – but with, I think, an exception. Every time he opens his mouth on the subject of capitalism, he says what he sincerely believes, which happens to fit neatly with present-day Republican ideology: that rich people deserve every penny they have, and if people complain about anything rich people do, it’s only because they’re envious.

Bill Murray in his prime couldn’t have played him.

A note on pandering

Embittered by fifty-two years (!) of false promises, my parents have sworn off voting for candidates who promise Fidel’s head on a platter delivered by a dancing girl who can sing Celia Cruz. Their vote for Republicans ticket is inspired by a combination of embracing the sociopolitical part of “conservatism,” parental exposure to the horrors of forced nationalization (at gunpoint in my grandmother’s case; she worked for a bank), and habit. They have accepted that the current version of the GOP has no use for their support of abortion rights, no matter how cogently they argue that their endorsement of choice is the most conservative position a self-professed Republican can make; and having seen its discontents in the airline industry Dad is skeptical of the panacea of deregulation. About other “social issues” my parents remain shall we say uneasy. Although I haven’t asked them about the “viability” of the former Speaker of the House’s campaign for president, I trust that accounts like this won’t endear him to them.

Hope and deranged: The Ides of March

In which sandpapery-voiced political consultant Steve Meyers (Ryan Gosling) realizes that the Democratic governor and candidate for president (George Clooney) is a louse, and, as a bonus, realizes that he’s a louse too. That’s all that’s at stake in what Tim Robbins’ louse of a Hollywood executive in The Player would classify as a cynical political thriller with a heart. The dialogue, written by director Clooney, Grant Heslow, and Beau Willimon, based on a play, is recognizable to anyone seduced by the chipper chihuahua excitement of Mark Halperin monologues on the cable talk shows, which I suppose adduces the film’s verisimilitude: it’s as shallow and “process”-driven as any “issue” hot enough to raise a tingle up Chris Matthews’ leg. Clooney as director errs in showing Clooney the actor’s point of view (e.g. the Sensitive Moment between the candidate and wife in the car); for this thing to work at all the candidate has to remain in the shadows, a smirking non-entity. At least Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, ladling irony like cold soup, offers a few rancid bon mots. I was especially offended by how Evan Rachel Wood exists to get seduced and abandoned for the sake of a gross and obvious plot twist in the sort of film for which the just as gross buzzword “homosocial” exists.

Clooney The Actor is the problem too — an example of a performer famous for what makes him least interesting. Called upon to express warmth, he’s merely self-absorbed; when he gives himself a blackguard moment he projects TV-actor malevolence. After Up in the Air, The Descendants, and this, Clooney better watch out: William Holden got trapped in the same place by the mid sixties. Would that he and Gosling have switched roles.

Or: how the other half lives


A few conservative concessions to liberalism’s strengths were made without qualification; others were begrudging. Nonetheless, in the conservative assessment, common themes emerge:

Liberals recognize the real problems facing the poor, the hardships resulting from economic globalization and the socially destructive force of increasing inequality.

Liberals do not dismiss or treat as ideologically motivated scientific findings, especially the sharpening scientific consensus that human beings contribute significantly to climate change.

Liberals stand with those most in need, and believe in the inclusion of such previously marginalized groups as blacks, Hispanics, women and gays.

As I sifted through the responses, it became clear that a widely shared view among contemporary conservatives is that liberals are all heart and no head, that their policies are misguided — thrown off track by an excessively emotional compassion that fails to recognize the likelihood of unintended consequences.

Or, as Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison reminded us in JFK, “We’re through the lookin’ glass, people!”

Fandom stepping out: Disco Inferno

A close to definitive oral history of Disco Inferno, a band about which I knew little until last year. I’ll need this: even after listening with growing pleasure to the reissue of The Five EP‘s last fall my reservations still stand. Ian Crause’s vocals, wry in the undistinguished way of a funny political science adjunct at a public university, don’t reward concentration, so I’ll have to take Ned’s word about the intelligence of his lyrics. Learning how, like New Order, they produced haunting sounds from a less than adroit grasp of sampling technology validates a method, not the results. As creators of ambient musics, however, these men are first-rate – dig the rattling dishes, whooshing train effects, and heard-from-the-woods piano in “From the Devil to the Deep Blue Sky,” or “Love Stepping Out,” which sounds like the offspring of Orbital and Steve Reich. Essays in shoegaze (“A Rock to Cling To”) and jangle (“The Last Dance” and its better produced successor “The Long Dance”) are as compelling but impossible to imagine on any college station. Disco Inferno were meant for studious concentration on headphones; they reward the attention.