Metropolitan Museum

Snowed in last Friday afternoon, I watched Metropolitan, Whit Stillman’s debut movie. I hadn’t seen it since it was in the theaters in 1990. I was surprised by how much of it I remembered, and marveled over how many cultural and literary references must’ve made no sense to me back then. Smartypants though I was, I was just 19, a college sophomore still more immersed in mid-to-high-brow superhero comics than any other narrative form.

Metropolitan tells its story over two weeks of ball season and is seen through the eyes of an outsider to deb/socialite culture, a college man whose parents have divorced, leaving him a “West Sider” in a world of Upper East Side socialites. “My resources,” he frequently says, “are limited.”

(I’m sure I romantically cast myself in that same role back then, though outsiderness is relative. Over our Christmas visit to her family in Louisiana — and that’s a story I’ve been meaning to get to — Amy & I went in to New Orleans to see my friend Paul Longstreth play piano at Bistreaux. My wife’s family live in a bayou town about 40 minutes from the city, but Paul comes from a town 40 minutes further away. He and Amy talked about growing up in those parts, and Paul made the comment that, during our time at Tulane, he felt like the total outsider. The school, he told us, was filled with rich northerners and fraternity types (“Just say it: Jews,” I joked) and he was the poor kid from way out in the swamp. I hadn’t seen him like that; I was too busy not bothering to fit in. But back to the movie.)

Our West Sider, Tom, gets adopted by the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, rounding out the group at 4 boys and 4 girls, all home from school for the holidays. Of course, there’s a romance and intrigues. There’s the also the charmingly entertaining debut of Chris Eigeman, the operator of the group, whose lengthy expositions somehow come off as charming instead of, well, info-dump. His Nick has a Gatsby-like farewell, boarding a Metro North train in full tux and top hat.

Looking back at the movie and myself at 19, I don’t think I understood the fragility of the characters, their delicate balance between being children of privilege and being children. I’m sure I was a bit irked at the fairy-tale-ness of their lives, even though I went to the theater that evening with a pal of mine who came from that world. I suppose I thought back then that those lives may have been real, but that they were objects of pity, not even scorn. I think that’s how I would’ve asserted some sort of superiority to my not having won the genetic jackpot. I wasn’t cut out for class war.

One of the characters, Charlie (the stand-in for a neurotic Jew), goes on exhaustively about the career prospects he and his friends have, and his theory of how the UHBs (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie) are doomed to fail to live up to past generations. Just a few days from 40, I contemplated that notion of failure for a while.

The night I graduated high school in 1989, I had a strange conversation with a pal of mine who came from great wealth. I’d just moved to the area a year earlier, because my mom’s boss married this guy’s mom, and moved his offices down from NJ to PA.

My pal and I sat by the pond in his backyard and talked about The Future. He told me that he’d go to college, do his thing for a while, and then come back and work in his father’s company. Until that moment, I’d never considered that someone at 18 could possibly have the general lines of his life sketched out so clearly. What did I know from legacies? Sometimes I think my parents’ key legacy is uprootedness, stemming from their childhoods in the war, their migrations to Israel, then America. (Like I said, Mom & I picked up and moved the summer before my senior year of high school.)

Twenty-one years later, my pal is working at his dad’s company. He does pretty well for himself, married a beautiful (non-WASP) woman, and has a pair of kids. I’ll go out on a limb and say the kids are wonderful, even though I haven’t met them yet. He’s one of the happier men I know, and I don’t think his happiness is tied to his bank account.

But it wasn’t my mid-life notions of failure and success that kept me watching the movie. To be honest, it wasn’t the characters or their skilfully written, deliberate prep-college dialogue, either. What really got to me about Metropolitan this time around were the brief glimpses of the city.

There aren’t too many exterior scenes in the movie (and many are outside the Plaza, the Stanhope and ’21’), but almost all of them were of a New York that’s dead and gone, only 20 years hence. I found myself nostalgic for the boxy old cabs, the lunch that Tom & his nemesis Charlie share at the Automat, the two bookstores Audrey passes on Christmas Eve (Doubleday and Scribner’s). I missed that New York, even if I only had passing acquaintance with it.

The fashions, on the other hand, I wasn’t nostalgic for. Sure, it was fun to see the women in preppy garb and late-’80’s hair (and Audrey was awfully cute with that girl-from-Human-League cut), but now that I’ve become more of menswear aficionado, I have to say I was in dread awe of the suits. The peak (of the peak lapels) was reached near the end, Tom & Charlie meet an older version of themselves in Dick Edwards.

Tom: Do you think that, generally speaking, people from this sort of background are doomed to failure?

Dick: Doomed? That would be far easier. No, we simply fail without being doomed.

Charlie: But you feel that you HAVE failed.

Dick: Yeah.

Tom: You can still afford to eat in places like this, though.

Dick: Oh, I’m not destitute. I’ve got a good job that pays decently. It’s just that it’s all so . . . mediocre, so unimpressive. The acid test is whether you take any pleasure in responding to the question, “What do you do?” I can’t bear it.

You start out expecting something more, and some of your contemporaries achieve it. You start reading about them in the papers, seeing them on TV. That’s the danger of midtown Manhattan: running across far more successful contemporaries. I try to avoid them whenever I can. When I can’t, they’re always very friendly. But inevitably they ask what am I doing, or think it.

stillman.jpg

. . . Or they’re thinking, “My God! His lapels are nearly touching his shoulders!” I mean, I enjoy me some Tom Ford lapels, but that’s mobster-level, especially when you combine it with pinstripes.

Anyway, it really was nice to catch up with that movie, both as a time capsule and as a marker of how much more I know now. Guess I gotta get around to Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco sometime.

What It Is: 11/29/10

What I’m reading: The Odyssey, some goofy Johnny Ryan comics, and a ton of magazines I needed to catch up on, like Monocle, New York, Fantastic Man, GQ, Esquire, and Interview.

What I’m listening to: Barking, The Lady Killer, High Violet, This is Happening, and Ain’t Nobody Worryin’.

What I’m watching: The Promise, Alice in Wonderland, Moon, About a Boy, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and some more of season 1 of In Treatment.

What I’m drinking: G&T with Ethereal gin, from a little distillery up in the Berkshires.

What Rufus & Otis are up to: Being cute for our Thanksgiving guests, going on a colder hike at Wawayanda. I’d share the specs with you, but I updated the GPS app on my iPhone and now it doesn’t work correctly. Yay. Thanks, Motion-X!

Where I’m going: I’ll be in Puerto Rico next Sunday-Tuesday for a mini-biz trip. It’ll be my first JetBlue trip, and my first flight from Newburgh Airport, up near Herriman. Continental’s rates were absolutely exorbitant, esp. since I was booking late, so I’m going to break with my rule of not flying direct on this trip. I have a 6 a.m. flight back home on Tuesday (via Orlando), but I don’t think I’m capable of staying up all night and rolling straight into the airport, as I once did.

What I’m happy about: Getting some errands done during my week off, managing to get $500 in trade-in value for my 1st-generation MacBook Air from Tekserve in NYC, and spending a little while comic-shopping with my pal Mark. Also, I was happy to have a long conversation about men’s fashion with a clerk at the Club Monaco store in SoHo. It sounds superficial, I know, but it was nice to chat with someone who took one look at me and recognized that I didn’t dress by accident.

What I’m sad about: Some punk-ass kids smashed my mailbox over the weekend, prompting me to buy and install a new “vandal-proof” one.

What I’m worried about: That my inability to get into LCD Soundsystem is a sign that I’m an old fart.

What I’m pondering: A good quote about my heart for the website of my wife’s pal Nicole’s blog. I’m thinking of coming up with something from here.

What It Is: 10/4/10

What I’m reading: That Iliad. Patroklos just went down, so things are about to get out of hand.

What I’m listening to: Sir Lucious Left Foot, A Friend of a Friend, In Our Nature, and some Steve Earle.

What I’m watching: Boardwalk Empire, Bored to Death, and Eastbound & Down. That’s a pretty sweet Sunday night lineup by HBO (not that we stay up to watch ’em). Oh, and the stupidest finish of a college football game I’ve ever seen (not that I watch much college football): LSU beating Tennessee when too many Volunteers volunteered to make the goal-line stand on the last play of the game. I mean, I’ve seen teams called for 12 players on the field, but FOURTEEN PLAYERS, all lined up? We “joke” that LSU coach Les Miles may be a slow adult, but to see his idiocy get trumped by another coach? I should make a “Special Olympics Bowl” joke here, but I’m not that mean. Oh, wait . . .

What I’m drinking: Dry Fly & Q-Tonic, although I spent most of the week dry, in hopes of getting off the stress-induced cycle of drinking and/or taking a Xanax in order to get to sleep. Why I chose to do this during a heavy-duty production week, I don’t know. I should’ve waited till this week, when there’s less work stress to pervade my brain.

What Rufus & Otis are up to: Going on another long-ass hike on Sunday. On Saturday, Ru pulled his R. Kelly trick and peed on Otis’ head when they were out for their morning walk. Oh, and they played grab-ass.

Where I’m going: Kansas City for the wedding of one of Amy’s pals

What I’m happy about: Finishing my October issue (pretty much) on time.

What I’m sad about: The Ultimate Trailer Show on HDNet got cancelled. This is a serious problem, because Robert Wilonsky’s show was just about the only way I found out about good upcoming movies. If it weren’t for that show, we’d never have heard about Louis, and I’d have missed out on one of the best musical experiences of my life. So, grr. Basically, we’d just open Netflix when Wilonsky’s show was on, and plug in movie after movie. In fact, our next Netflix delivery comes from a UTS episode: The Good, The Bad and the Weird. (UPDATE: and, my wife reminds me, without UTS & Wilonsky, we’d never have discovered In the Loop, which is among my favorite comedies.)

What I’m worried about: That I’m forgetting something. I’ve been pretty stressed lately, and my memory’s been addled as a result. Friday, walking the dogs, I had some song lyrics in my head, but couldn’t recall the song they were from. It took a day or two before it came back to me: Babylon Sisters. But that made me sad because that’s also the title of a book for which my pal Sang, who died in January, designed the cover.

What I’m pondering: Achilles and fate (again). I hope to write at length about a couple of thoughts on the subject, but I need to finish the poem again first. I love how each re-read finds me focusing on a different key; last time (2007), I made a muddled attempt at figuring out the role of the gods in the action & the characters’ lives. Now that doesn’t seem like too much of an issue to me.

What It Is: 8/30/10

What I’m reading: The Iliad.

What I’m listening to: Sir Lucious Left Foot, The Singular Adventures of the Style Council, Simple Things and Blood Like Lemonade

What I’m watching: Nothing much. We watched 3 hours of Spike Lee’s new New Orleans documentary, but eh.

What I’m drinking: Luchador Tremblor shiraz. I’m out of Q-Tonic, as is one of my hook-ups.

What Rufus & Otis are up to: Sadly, getting diagnosed with mange of some kind. They’ve been scratching like crazy the last few weeks, keeping us up in the middle of the night, so I took them down to the vets’ offices to see what was what, hoping it was just allergies. They figure it’s mange (not sure what variety), so the boys are on antibiotics and Benadryl. Rufus is okay about taking capsules with yogurt or Barney Butter, but Otis is much pickier, so that’s been a bit of a trial. We kept them home from this week’s grey-hike for that reason, not wanting to risk getting the other dogs mangenated.

Where I’m going: Harlem! Amy & I are going to the Apollo tonight to see a performance of Louis. It’s a (new) silent movie, with accompaniment by Wynton Marsalis and a bunch of other jazz musicians. Just watch the trailer and you’ll understand why we’re making the hike out to 125th St. for this one-night show. (The last silent movie I saw was Silent Movie.)

What I’m happy about: Selling off my 2nd generation Kindle for enough money to upgrade to a 3rd gen model pretty cheaply. And since I’ll be reading my print edition of The Iliad (Lattimore’s translation isn’t available as an e-book), that’ll tide me over until the new model arrives. Also, we took a nice hike on Sunday (sans doggies, since I think they contracted this mange by hanging out in the brackish water of Ramapo Lake a month back), which will likely be better in autumn. Oh, and on a little pre-pick-up-Amy-at-the-train-stop shopping expedition on Friday, I was mistaken for a J.Crew employee and had my shoes complimented by young Club Monaco salesman in the span of 10 minutes. I think that’s a little more flattering than last week’s experience at the hiking store.

What I’m sad about: This mange thing makes me look like a crappy dog-father (and my dogs are itchy and irritable/ticklish).

What I’m worried about: Nothing significant. I finished our September issue on time, and my big annual conference is looking pretty good, as far as attendee count and speaker/panelist anxiety goes.

What I’m pondering: How many R-rated movies I saw before I turned 10. I saw at least three in the theater: Caddyshack, History of the World, Part I, and The Jerk. I’m pretty sure I saw Animal House and Blazing Saddles at home (decoder box) before my 10th birthday, too.

Movie Review Tuesday: Misanthropy, My Nic Cage Problem, and Abusing the Audience

Guess who watched some movies last week?

Greenberg: I loved Noah Baumbach’s first flick, Kicking and Screaming (not the Will Ferrell one; the one with Olivia D’Abo wearing a retainer), but haven’t seen any of his subsequent movies. This one reminded me of K&S in parts, esp. in a climactic decision made by Ben Stiller’s titular character. And that character, an emotionally crippled neurotic, could easily have been a pal of one of K&S’ aimless college graduates, still trying to work things out at the age of 40.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about this movie was its sheer naturalness. It’s rare (for me) to see performances where the characters are making decisions, where their silences are as important as (maybe more important than) what they say. Even the pontificating dialogue didn’t feel as though it was written for them. As I mentioned last week, this movie is on my Mount Rushmore of Middle-Aged Misanthropy. Greenberg isn’t “likable,” and his rants aren’t exactly “what we all wish we could say,” but his anxiety, his desperation and his frustration are so familiar to me that I found myself invested in that character far more than I expected. I haven’t felt this close to a Stiller character since Zoolander.

I was also swept up by the soulful, downbeat performance of Rhys Ifans and thought Greta Gerwig did a tremendous job of playing off of Stiller. Her character’s “millennial” (or whatever that 20-something demo is called) uncertainty of who she is and what she wants serves as a corrective for Greenberg’s decades-long unrootedness and inability to connect. Of course, it’s a love story of sorts, but it features one of the most (humorously) uncomfortable sex scenes of all time.

On the negative side, Greenberg uses a sick dog as a way to build tension and sympathy, and that felt kinda cheap. Still, I thought this was a wonderful movie, but maybe that’s just the anxiety-ridden, socially inept loner in me. I like to think we’re all a little Greenberg.

Notting Hill: We only put this on because Rhys Ifans and Gina McKee are in it. I was glad to see that Ms. McKee’s teeth were far better in In The Loop. Also, I think Hugh Grant was better looking in his About A Boy phase, skinnier and without the floppy hair. But, boy, was this a non-movie.

Matchstick Men: I have a Nicolas Cage problem. As a result of him doing such crappy movies for so many years, it’s difficult to watch him in not-necessarily-crap movies, because he carries such crap-baggage. In this case, he looked like he was treading a line between acting and the bullshit parody of himself that he trots out to pay his mammoth tax bills. His character’s OCD issues come off as quirks that they added right before filming, to show him Acting.

I watched this for a few reasons:

  1. It’s another LA-as-a-character movies, and I’m interested in how that works (that was also the case for Greenberg),
  2. It’s directed by Ridley Scott, and I like to see what nausea-inducing camera trick or cinematographic wackiness or color scheme he employs from movie to movie,
  3. It’s got Sam Rockwell in it, and I’ll watch him in just about anything.

Neat movie to look at, but not a good flick. I guess LA was significant, but the landmarks were lost on me. The plot’s long con was pretty obvious midway through the flick, esp. when the long-lost daughter with whom Cage reunites bears a stronger resemblance to Rockwell than to him. On the plus side, Bruce McGill (D-Day from Animal House) was in this, which prompted me to check him out on IMDB. With his TV, movie and video game roles, it’s possible he’s done more work than anyone else from Animal House, with the exception of Donald Sutherland.

Rockwell, of course, is great. One of my pals once told me to note how often the camera lingers on his ass in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and I’ve noticed a fixation on Rockwell’s ass in other flicks since, like Moon (which makes sense). Funnily enough, the only actor to go bare-ass in this one is Nicolas Cage. Actually, there’s nothing funny about that.

District 9: More entertaining than I expected, although the political angle was kinda lost on me. I mean, I get the “it’s Joburg, so the aliens represent apartheid” hammer, but that doesn’t really correlate with, um, apartheid. If the humans moved somewhere and discovered a race of aliens and moved them into slums, that’d make a better parallel. It’s not like the blacks decided to move to South Africa, prompting the whites to enforce a status quo. Maybe it was supposed to be about how South African mentality is subtly oriented to keep Others in slums, but it’s not like there was some way that the aliens could have been assimilated into human society; they were submental, brutally strong, and had no concept of work. They sure had cool weapons, though. What I found most interesting was how the lead actor, Sharlto Copley, started out resembling a lost Monty Python actor, and transformed into Christian Bale’s homelier brother over the course of the flick.

And I had one gigantic problem with this flick: the storytelling model. District 9 spends its first 20 minutes carefully setting up a documentary model. Everything the audience sees is framed by a camera; we’re watching news footage, interviews, security cameras, etc. Then, it’s just dropped. We get a scene of two aliens scavenging through a trash pile, and the point of view is omniscient. The movie haphazardly flips back to documentary / reality TV style, then returns to omniscient mode when it needs to show scenes that couldn’t possibly have been “documented.” Once again: if your storytelling model can’t encompass the entire story, then you need to change either the story or the model. At the very least, the movie should have broken into chapters: this one is documentary style, this one is natural. They could have worked with the tension between the two modes that way, showing how the story changes from a “reality TV” mode to “what’s really happening,” but it’s clear that the documentary style was poorly thought out and just used to make some sort of point that I’m clearly missing. Probably about apartheid.

Movie Review Tuesday: Maneater Edition

I only saw two flicks this week, dear readers. I suppose their unifying theme is man’s inherent loneliness in the world. Also, both of them sorta feature the dead rising from their graves.

Zombieland: From what I gather, there’s been a mini-wave of zom-coms after the success of Shaun of the Dead (one of my favorite movies). This one’s a road trip variant; the characters bond, learn to trust each other, and kill lots of zombies. The gore’s not too severe, though it’s not exactly family friendly. Sadly, this one uses the “fast zombie” model that makes for more action-adventure suspense but sorta defeats the purpose of zombie flicks. (hint: it’s the implacability)

Some sorta virus has infected just about everyone and turned ’em into cannibals. Jesse Eisenberg, whom I last saw sucking all the life out of Adventureland, is a bit better here, trying to channel all the Michael Cera he can. Woody Harrelson does a much better job “playing” batshit-crazy. Emma Stone doesn’t have quite the charm she had in Superbad, but Abigail Breslin’s just amazing to watch. It’s a wonder how self-possessed that kid is in whatever role she plays. ?There’s a celebrity cameo that’s absolutely hysterical, and a neat reveal for Woody Harrelson’s character.

It’s an enjoyable (albeit forgettable) flick, but it also has a big storytelling flaw: Jesse Eisenberg’s character narrates the movie. It’s not that he does a bad job; his voiceover has a jaunty style, relating the various rules that his character has developed to survive the zombie plague. These are accompanied by funny video overlays, one of which becomes an emotional cue at a pivotal moment. Now, I don’t have a problem with voiceover per se, but in this case, his narration is directed at an audience. The problem is, he’s one of the last people on earth! There’s no “viewer” or recipient for his charming narration. Who is he charmingly talking to? It’s like the “worm’s-eye” perspective in that movie Tremors, which missed on the fact that worms don’t have eyes.

Outside of that un-thought-out piece of hackery, it was just fine. I mean, it’s a light flick, with nowhere near the heart of Shaun of the Dead‘s wonderful zombie coming-of-age masterpiece, but what are you gonna do? It’s Hollywood.

A Single Man: This was Tom Ford‘s first feature flick. I have a post about Ford that I need to work on, when I get the time. Ford was the creative director who revitalized the Gucci brand, then jumped to YSL before starting his own brand. He’s a notorious control freak, so I wondered whether film-making, just about the most collaborative artistic endeavor, would be shit. (There was a good interview with him in Fantastic Man a few years ago, but they don’t put any of their contents online, so you’ll have to find it yourself.)

But it wasn’t bad! Sure, there were a couple of heavy-handed techniques, particularly the repeated use of color saturation to show emotional resonance in scenes that were prior shot in muted tones. His slow-mo scenes at times felt like an attempt at stretching the movie out to feature length. And there’s a scene that’s a cross between a CK Obsession ad and a Guess ad. Oh, and, there’s also a shot right at the end where my wife & I both said, “I didn’t know John Woo guest-directed this one!” (one reason why I love her so; another is that she’s willing to spend Saturday night watching a Tom Ford movie.)

But you can let all that go, because Colin Firth was just fantastic. He plays a gay British literature professor living in LA in 1960, a few months after his lover of 16 years has died in a car accident. He was a joy to watch, a man trying to keep himself in check, living in an era where his sex had to be kept secret, and wondering how he could go on living without the love of his life. Ford must’ve had a field day recreating the period fashions, and we’re meant to luxuriate in the clothes and the decor. And in Nicholas Hoult, who’s like Zac Efron with depth.

As I think back on it, the story is slight: a gay man’s partner dies and he plans to kill himself. But the subtly spectacular visual environment, combined with Firth’s bravura performance, brought the world to life. And Julianne Moore’s British accent was much better than the Boston one she sports on 30 Rock.

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