Girls

The writing and producing team of Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow is brilliant. Dunham can provide for the real world dramatic back-and-forth of the characters and Apatow can provide for the off-the-wall hilarity which brings a typical dramatic scene to a whole other unexpected level. Season One of the HBO TV series “Girls” is basically like a new Lena Dunham film. I watched the episodes as they premiered on Sunday evenings last year, and then I watched them all over again in one long 10-hour marathon. Either way they’re bound to stay with you, affect you and peak your interest into what a second season would bring. And Season Two premieres this Sunday, January 13.

Girls TV Series

The set up for the series is simple and brilliant. It’s like a much more intelligent Sex and the City and for a much less Princess-syndrome-plagued audience. An audience not any less self-important and self-aware, but one whose just may be a little hipper, listens to Sleigh Bells, The Echo Friendly and prefers writing and art over college football and keg stands.

There’s even an ingenious referencing to Sex and the City by the most appropriate character for enjoying that kind of show on the series. She’s also the one who enjoys game shows, reality TV and is hyper-obsessed with perfection and losing her virginity. Let’s start with her – the least obvious of the cast of characters – and with the most befittingly bohemian uptight name: Soshanna. Soshanna’s still in college, lives with doll house decorations in her apartment and needs a serious wake-up call to life. She’s also the cousin of Jessa.

Jessa is your typical Urban Outfitters / Free People adorned Williamsburg hipster, although she has a little edge to her with the aloof-albeit-endearing foreign accent (which you have to even wonder if not unlike a Madonna-like play for attention, she puts on). She’s working in the most inappropriate job ever for someone as uninterested in personal responsibility as she is – an au pair for a well-off family with a too-busy-for-the-kids glamour industry mom and a shlubby, out of work musician dad who becomes more enamored with Jessa then his own children.

Then we get to the stars of show, Dunham herself (playing as Hannah) and her “best” friend and roommate Marnie. Marnie starts the whole series off on a downward trajectory which destroys the heart of a perfectly good boyfriend and finds her literally seething with hatred for her relationship with him because he’s “too nice” to her, and clearly because he sees beauty and perfection in her which she could never see in herself due to a plethora of hidden self-esteem issues which she’s dutifully masked throughout most of her life from everyone she knows – including the lowest self-esteemed of all – Hannah.

Marnie in GirlsMarnie’s the kind of girl I literally find myself hating now, because I’ve seen what someone as damaged as she is can do to a relationship, and I don’t think they can ever really change. She’s too pretty to realize she’s pretty and she’s too uptight and self-obsessed to ever want a man who doesn’t beat her down with his disinterest in her any waking hour except those in which he’s horny.

Hannah is the most well-developed character (and interestingly the only one whose parents we’re introduced to), and best of all she’s got the perfect boyfriend. On the outset, her boyfriend Adam is a perverted loser, but the beauty of the way this series unfolds is that you learn to not judge any characters by their initial affectations, and instead (like real people) give them a chance to get to know you. Adam is a unique, artistic guy who’s not afraid to stand up for himself and not afraid to tell Hannah what he wants, even if it frightens her. What’s cool about the series Girls is that Dunham is pleading to women her age out there to give guys like this a solid chance, because honestly you could write him off over the first few episodes, but by the middle of the season you’re kind of hooked. He keeps Hannah honest, doesn’t necessarily tell her what she wants to hear, but always tells her what he’s feeling (when she takes the time to become un-self-absorbed and actually ask him). They’re a good combination of emotional intelligence and creativity for each other and really, Dunham puts all the pressure on the character she’s playing to keep it together with Adam, because (like most self-absorbed and low-esteemed girls) she’s unsure about a good thing.

girls-hbo-adam-hannahSeason Two has some changes in store for Hannah and Adam though, as Hannah will obviously be freaked out by the realization that Adam is actually in love and committing to her. Dunham actually sums up the feelings her character has for Adam in an honest and perfect real life example from her past (via Vulture), depicting just how some girls can be when they’re not emotionally mature at all:

The thing is, I’ve been in so many situations where, like, the power balance just shifts and shifts and shifts — like, I remember when I was 16 and I had this boyfriend from camp and I liked him so much, and he did not like me that much. He was really cool; he was a rapper, but he was not that into me. But then I went back home, he went back home, I started calling him a little less, and he turned into this mixtape-sending, flower-wielding person. I went to Boston to visit my friend and saw him, and we all went to a thrift store together, and it was like his passion for me was so unbridled he shoved me into a coat rack and tried to kiss me. And I was like, “Get off of me!” I just had this feeling like, “Where were you before?” I felt revulsion, because when you’re not mature enough to handle being responsible for somebody else’s feelings, their need is disgusting. When you really love someone, and you’re adult enough to understand that life is a back-and-forth of sometimes you need and sometimes they need, then you find somebody else’s vulnerability beautiful, and you want to nurture it, and you want to keep it safe. But I feel like, until pretty recently in my life, somebody expressing any kind of desperation or any kind of vulnerability — it was like your parents showing you they have real feelings, it was like running into your teacher on the subway. It was awful, and so I think that for Hannah this switch with Adam, even though it’s everything she had dreamed of, was overwhelming, and suddenly he’s a real person and she’s scared, and there’s this feeling of somebody else is wanting her time and her energy, and she’s not about that.

All the characters in this series are perfectly crafted out of real-life, they’re perfectly flawed and ingeniously paired. It’s a risky series for someone like Dunham to reveal because of its level of personal reflection and commitment as both filmmaker and star playing a role in which she must reflect many of her own personal demons. It’s also a challenging series because initially it was hard for me to become so invested in it; the girls are just so utterly off-putting to begin with that I found it to be more socially un-redeeming than socially revealing, but it’s an important and intelligent (and funny!) examination on young women and men and their ability to process and maintain meaningful relationships in today’s technocratic and constantly evolving world. Stick with it through the first few episodes and I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised and glad you met these characters.

Shame

Michael Fassbender is a powerhouse of subtlety. Even in big budget fare he shines, but it’s his work with director Steve McQueen that is most recognizable. Both Hunger and Shame are McQueen visions that are fueled by the madness of a singular character played by Fassbender. It’s quite possibly a connection that they have as artists or maybe a niche in which they’ve found the ability to collaborate viscerally and poignantly.

Hunger is an amazingly powerful film that affected me deeply, but Shame is a companion piece that raises the bar and builds the apex of what I hope will become a McQueen/Fassbender trilogy of sorts. It would be awesome if McQueen’s currently in production Twelve Years a Slave is the work that rounds out their collaboration and seals in all the colors and textures and smells a McQueen film packs behind its images.

Many great directors find themselves eventually creating a triptych (whether intentional or not), and it’s not too soon for someone like McQueen (who showed his filmmaking chops very early on) to have this type of style that ultimately results in a common “theme” tying together a few consecutive works. Shame is at times graceful and at other times vicious. It diabolically wears its NC-17 rating with a sense of pride (one that maybe only Europeans can appreciate marketing-wise) that Fassbender’s character himself would shy away from for sure. The images at times are as black as the solitary confinements of the prison in Hunger.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a sex-obsessed business man with some deep-seated anti-social tendencies. While the film’s only negative quality may be the potentially inferable pointless of it all; the irresolution; it’s better viewed as a character study and less as a traditional Hollywood narrative. Carey Mulligan plays the estranged, nearly naïve, waif-like sister / subconscious-level, incestuous lover, who also, in a very Lynchian way, is a lounge singer.

Fassbender’s character arc is one of self-realization to self-treatment to self-dissolution. By the end of the film he is seemingly right back to where he was at the beginning and without correction to his ill-attended issues. The cool thing about McQueen and Fassbender’s way of dealing with this well-trodden cinematic theme is that they never supply an easily blamable cause to the matter. His sex addiction is not depicted as necessarily a power possession or release thing for him, and it’s not really depicted as something stemming from childhood. There’s really no good explanation for why he is the way he is, except that he just is.

Shame is the kind of film you’ll come back to so you can look for the nuances missed the first time around. McQueen’s way of framing a shot has always been like a great impressionist painter, and though the background here is the twinkling lights of New York City, I have no doubt he is the new Renoir using the lens as his brush and the celluloid as his canvas.

Man on Wire

The defining moment in Man on Wire for me was about 20 minutes into the film when footage of the World Trade Center towers being constructed is shown in all it’s grainy, faded glory. Seeing again those massive triple-beams cross-hatched in almost puzzle-like pieces, being hoisted above stacks of steel rebar, sheets of metal, blocks of concrete and a persistent lingering of beige dust, could only make me think of one thing. The beautiful irony of the whole movie is that when numerous gratuitous documentaries have been made about the WTC catastrophe, each with their special blend of film and video footage of that infamous day and its Dante-like aftermath, Man on Wire never once recalls that terror and in addition offers up this glorious peek at the landmark’s birth.


But, ok, that’s not what the film is about. Man on Wire is a documentary about Philippe Petit, a tightrope walker (and all-around interesting guy) from France and the intricate plot he exacted just after the birth of the WTC: walking on a single steel wire which him and some friends strung between the two towers over night. It’s a truly fabulous story and one which Petit himself made into a book. He was writing it in 2001 when the towers fell.*


1,350 feet in the air, in the wee hours of the Manhattan morning fog, Petit dressed all in black walked, knelt and laid down on the wire he’d spent the night setting up. He had crossed back and forth at least eight times before the New York City Port Authority and police yanked him in from the clouds. Neither wind, nor nerves, nor helicopters could knock him down, although he himself claimed he thought the feat something of a death wish. The film primarily deals with how Petit and his band of accomplices planned, developed and exacted such an event without being caught, spotted or stopped. Even more interesting is the reaction of the police and city officials who while taking the matter seriously (deporting the non-Americans involved), dropped all charges against them and actually gave Petit a lifelong all-access pass to the rooftop of the WTC.

Bittersweet is a single photo of Petit straddling a steel beam on the rooftop on which he’d dated and signed his name. Now the photos are all that remain. Man on Wire is chock-full with archival footage of Petit and even some of his other unconventional tightrope displays (Notre Dame, Sydney Harbour Bridge), glossy interviews with just about everybody involved in the project, and nicely detailed dramatic reconstructions of the day-long hideout at the WTC and the preparations of that night leading up to the trick. All-in-all there is nothing this film doesn’t deliver upon and nothing you can do but watch in awe as the titular man’s circus-wit, charming effervescence and steely nerves endure a feat most of us wouldn’t even dare to dream about.

*Lazarovic, Sara. “The Daredevil in the Clouds.” National Post Monday. September 9, 2002.

Two Bad Lieutenants – One Good Producer

Film producer Edward R. Pressman puts together some pretty amazing films. In the 90s alone he had Homocide, Two Girls and a Guy, Hoffa, Reversal of Fortune and The Crow. In the oughts, he had American Psycho, Harvard Man, Undertow and The Cooler. In the 80s he had Oliver Stone. Anyway, I guess I’m just so fond of many of his films, and a lot of them I’m fond of specifically because I love the originality and daringness of them, so seeing that he wanted to remake one of his films that was near perfect – irritates me to no extent.

Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who can be hit or miss. Usually hit. Sometimes he puts together a story like Bad Lieutenant (Ms .45 or King of New York) where he just finds his focus and rings it dry, and sometimes that focus never becomes deeply, disturbingly clear (like New Rose Hotel). Bad Lieutenant was the kind of film in the early 90s that was like shock treatment to cinema. It was pure, raw, eviscerating, unflinching, beautiful and filthy all in one. Harvey Keitel plays amazingly, the emotionally unstable, severely addicted and bitterly human titular character. Like I said, near perfect.


Now, it probably didn’t get much theater-life as a result of its NC-17 rating, a rating as ridiculous as ever, considering the ungodly acts of violence, drug use and sex that prime time crime shows now think is necessary to keep their viewers. Have you ever wondered how in the world Law and Order SVU gets away with half of the content they deal with at nine o’clock at night? I’d wager Ferrara himself would shudder. I digress.


Werner Herzog, another amazing (and sometimes not-so-amazing) filmmaker comes along and remakes Ferrara’s film Bad Lieutenant. So the first part that irked me “bad” was the new subtitle. No longer is it Bad Lieutenant, now it’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans. What? Why? That was the first thing I said, then I was like, “And how could Pressman let this happen!?” Yes, I distinctly recall sitting in front of Apple’s trailers website and yelling those very words at the screen. Was it contractual? As maybe part of the deal for shooting in New Orleans after Katrina? That I could understand, but anything else is just not an acceptable reason. In fact, there hasn’t been an acceptable reason to subtitle a film since like 1982 or unless it’s a documentary. I digress, again.

So first the title is bastardized, then the whole film I come to find out too! Well, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it until now (as you may notice from my blog, even though I have a lifelong plan to watch every film in existence, I’m always a little behind. Theaters are too noisy these days, plus I have my own.)

In the opening minutes to the film, the lieutenant (here played uncomfortably by Nicolas Cage) displays immediate heroic traits and enables the audience to sympathize for him throughout the rest of the film. We even find out in the next scene that he’s now plagued with a painful ailment as a result of his kindness. This is a terrible change to the original film. The whole beautiful point of Ferrara’s film is that the lieutenant has no immediate redeemable traits; we’re led to believe he is just a horrible man and we grow to despise him before we witness the raw realization that he has of his own downfall. Some goodness will come out of him in the later scenes, but it’s never overwrought like Herzog’s.

Now, agreed, Herzog does 180 on us at the end and leave it with a cold closing scene that is in direct contrast to what we’ve been made to feel for him, but this is unnecessary and to be expected in a modern film – always there’s a twist – but it’s vague here and doesn’t reflect the meaning behind the original version. The beauty of the 1992 version is that his self-destructive nature is heightened by the disturbing case that he is working on; he’s affected by it. Nicolas Cage’s lieutenant could care less about dead children on his turf, he’s heartless. I even question what he felt was in it for him to risk his silk underwear in the opening scenes of the film, in order to save a trapped prisoner in a quickly flooding New Orleans. Maybe he new it was a promotion.


Keitel knows how to feel this character out. Cage doesn’t. Cage’s vocal tone and accent even begins to morph throughout his scenes. I just don’t think he cared about this one at all. What Herzog is sorely lacking here is his muse: Kinski. Klaus Kinski in the role of the lieutenant would have been quite something to witness on film. Too bad we’ll have to just stick with Woyzeck.

Ferrara knows how to use New York City to his advantage. Herzog is a foreigner to New Orleans. It’s void of any color; lifeless even in the wake of the floods. Herzog is no stranger to making great films about foreign lands and the people who inhabit them (Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde), and he appears to be employing some of that in this film too with his Senegalese drug dealers.

It’s a shame this film was remade, when it should have been apparent to the producers that it was perfect in its place in contemporary film history. If they wanted to cash in on it, couldn’t they just have waited two years and created a nice, deluxe edition Blu-ray boxset for the tenth anniversary of the film? Or give it the Criterion treatment. Everyone is aware that Hollywood is clearly hard-up for anything original anymore, that’s why every summer there is at least three or four remakes of films that should be preserved as the beautiful shining relics that they are, instead of being bastardized by filmmakers who can’t come up with their own ideas. I think what bothers me the most is that I’ve always regarded Herzog as a genius, a savant in his film concepts and style, so the fact that he needs to remake something is just sad and a clear sign of the times.

Permanent Vacation

Jim Jarmusch’s first full length film feels like his most ominous as well. Of all his work, it may be my least favorite – story wise – and my most favorite, cinematically. It’s really an effort in capturing tones, in capturing existing.

“Allie” Parker is the focal point of the entire film, existing in nearly every shot after the opening. We see him exist and semi-interact with his girlfriend at their sparse apartment. We see him skulk around the dilapidated landscape of New York City. We see him visit his mother at the mental hospital. We see him come across a number of odd characters whose purpose seems little more than backdrop. Finally, we see him steal a convertible Mustang, which he then gets $800 for and promptly ditches town. As the film ends, Allie gets on a boat and the boat eventually pulls away leaving in it’s wake the late seventies New York City skyline. Allie has finally got out.


Jarmusch’s later films all touch on travel in some way or another, and there are a host of other elements in Permanent Vacation that a Jarmusch-ite will no doubt recognize. John Lurie pops up as a wandering saxophone player on the grimy city streets at night. I’m a sucker really for anything visually involving the decay of urban landscapes, and that is one area where this film doesn’t disappoint. Actually, it is a poignant first film for Jarmusch and one that perfectly begins his oeuvre. A film about wanting to escape the trappings of New York City, and even though Jarmusch will come back to NYC in later works, this one definitely seems the most personal.

I think the last line out of Allie as he’s about to leave NYC for good sort of sums up Jarmusch’s filmic persona, “I’m a certain kind of tourist. A tourist that’s on a permanent vacation.”

Thurston Goes No Wave

Thurston Moore is no stranger to publishing books. just check out ECSTATIC PEACE.COM. But tackling an underground NYC music scene from the late 70s is one of his better reads. Granted, I’m a few months behind in blogging about this, but

NO WAVE.
POST PUNK.
UNDERGOUND.
NEW YORK.
1976-1980.

is such an interesting compendium of a seemingly forgotten (but all too eerily similar to present day’s) music style, that i thought it too important not to note here.

So yes, on a blog where I whine about wanting to omit genres from music and just listen impartially, I promote a book which does just the opposite. C’est la vie.

The Panic In Needle Park


“God help Bobby and Helen. They’re in love in, Needle Park.”

Well, if this logline from the trailer doesn’t make you want to see this gritty 70s masterpiece from director Jerry Schatzberg, then don’t watch Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. You might find, much like I did, that some of the scenes between the “fucked up pooh-butt” Uma Thurman, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette and John Travolta are homages to Schatzberg’s sophomore film.

Bobby (Al Pacino) and Helen (Kitty Winn) play the epitome of the heroin addict spending nearly the entire 109 minutes of the film roaming around the streets of New York City, looking to buy a hit, looking to sell a hit, looking to fall in love and escape their fate. The film seems to centralize on the fact that they are not getting out of the life they’ve continued to lead without being pulled out. Whether it be by accident, fate, death or arrest, they continue to wait for something to happen to them instead of doing something for themselves.

Kitty Winn took home the award for Best Actress at Cannes for her role in this film, and she deserved it maybe, but it was really Pacino who dominated many of the scenes throughout. Wonderfully shot and directed, I was enthralled till the stark ending. An ending which I must admit sort of took me surprise. I think this film was ahead of its time for 1971, and while it may not serve to affect an audience in the maelstrom of glossy drug addiction flicks that plagued the disillusioned late 80s and 90s, it makes a huge impact if your not yet desensitized to such fare.

For more on Schatzberg, click HERE.