TiVo Servitude

This week has seen me a slave to my TiVo, which, brimming full, has mercilessly threatened to erase unwatched movies (to avenge itself for my tendency to record three hour long monstrosities) if I don't continuously watch films from morning to midnight. So, a summary of recently watched movies on TiVo, DVD, and in theaters, with the most recently watched films first (SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW):

"L'AVVENTURA" (1960)
dir. Michelangelo Antonioni

I was slowly wooed by this classic Antonioni, only the second of his (after "Blow Up") I have ever seen. The best explanation I can give of the transformation of my initial reluctance to engage is that it is really the magnetically beautiful Monica Vitti who made the film for me, and she only comes to occupy the central place in the narrative after her friend Anna (Lea Massari) has lengthily expressed her discontent with life and mysteriously disappeared. This is a rich, eventful film masquerading (quite cleverly) as a plotless one, and I can see already that it will reward multiple watchings, not merely to observe the famously ambiguous details of Anna's disappearance (was she lying when she said she saw a shark in the ocean while she was swimming?), but also to absorb the significance of a fleet of peripheral characters and events (like the author who writes in a trance and transforms a city of Italian men into a lurching zombie horde by ripping the seam on her skin tight skirt). One of my favorite moments comes quite near the end, when the bored, insomniac Monica Vitti, waiting for her absent lover to return, wanders her hotel room and explores the plasticity of her face in the mirror. A dozen emotions range across her face in a matter of seconds; it is as if she is warming up for a confrontation to come. A layered and captivating film.

"THE QUIET MAN" (1952)
dir. John Ford

I can't help it. I never expected to harbor a secret, burning love for either Gene Kelly or John Wayne (and more different loves they couldn't possibly be - let's be honest - although they certainly share a substantial physical charisma), but that is how it has happened, and there is no use denying it now. John Wayne plays slightly out of form in this rollickingly paced comedy about an American who returns to his Irish birthplace and falls in love with the "Homerically" willful Maureen O'Hara. OK, so the film is wildly uncomfortable on the subjects of, say, spousal abuse, feminism and non-violence, and it has a wonderfully blithe way of plastering over the Troubles and the problem of religious difference, but the sheer enthusiasm of the characters (not to mention the disarming intensity of the love scenes) are seductive, and you find yourself undeniably enthralled.

dir. Agnes Jaoui

A narcissitic author-publisher and his terminally self-conscious daughter clash over the idea that caring is control, and manage to be endlessly cruel to all those that love them. Every attempt at connection (be it friendship or love) is met with distrust, derision, or the obliteration of the friend and lover. But the whole thing is done to a haunting lovely soundtrack of Monteverdi, so can it all be that grim? What emerges is a fascinating character study in family politics.

dir. Theo Angelopoulos

A synthesis of (and meditative response to) the entire Greek epic tradition, this is also an absolutely riveting three hours. See it on as big a screen as possible: it is a subtle, painterly approach to film-making, a narrative constructed of incredibly long shots that develop in infinitesimal increments until they ripen into shocking meaning. It is a stunning love story of few words and detailed characterizations, a family saga and a tale of civil war that searingly retreads the traditions of "Seven against Thebes" and "Antigone." Each of the shots is a flawlessly constructed study in place as character. The weeping meadow is the plot of land given to ethnic Greeks fleeing Russia in the film's opening moments (land which ties them to an endless cycle of labor and loss); it is the field of honor on which soldiers killed in battle lie, waiting for their mothers to find them; and it is the organizing symbol of history in the film - a field in which each blade of grass yields a drop of dew that ultimately forms a river. There are town scenes straight out of Brueghel, in which the real object of our interest is gradually lost amidst the shifting patterns and rich seeming-chaos of life. There are Dutch interiors: Vermeer letter-readers and scenes that develop across several rooms, fitting multiple planes of narrative and image into a single frame. But this rich weft of cultural precedent never makes the film derivative or its characters stiff allegories. A devastating, imperative experience.

A flurry of Los Angeles activity

My boyfriend Dan and I finally caught up with the lauded television series "Weeds" this weekend, largely because whenever he expresses an interest in writing quirky comedies (which is frequently) this one is cited to us as a prototype. Many people I know, love, and respect have a fondness bordering on addiction (ha ha) for the show, so we settled down to watch it with relish. Only to look at each other with a wary incomprehension thirty minutes later. Surely it must get better, we concluded. So we watched two more episodes. At that point Dan sleepily gave up, but I persevered through the whole first disc, without any increase in admiration or enjoyment.

I have always found Mary Louise Parker's work somewhat grating, and nothing convinced me otherwise here, but she was hardly the only problem. Across the board the acting was wooden or oddly half-formed (I am narrowly avoiding bad pot-related puns all through this explanation) and the characterizations were thoughtless and even lazy. In Dan's view, the show's most serious flaw is that it is "overwritten." The most effective television comedies (like "Arrested Development," the British "Coupling," or "Sports Night") manage to create a comic structure made up of many seemingly unrelated jokes that all coalesce into one grand, unexpected joke: a sort of a drama of coordination, to use a term that recalls Shakespeare's comedies. "Weeds" self-consciously attempts this, but you can see skeleton through the flesh of the writing all too often - every joke is telegraphed, and the structure seems not so much complex as contrived. Also, most devastatingly, it isn't funny. Is this just prudery on our part? Does it improve from here? Please tell me if it does.

Speaking of prudery, I became enraged with "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" on Monday. This was the most anticipated new show of the season for me, since I have been known to be a bit of a Sorkin groupie (I abruptly stopped watching "The West Wing" after he and director/producer Thomas Schlamme departed at the end of the fourth season). Unfortunately, I have found the first few episodes strangely dull. There seems to be nothing at stake here - not only have they (writers, actors, directors) failed to convince us that we should care whether the show-within-a-show succeeds, but the dialogue contains almost none of Sorkin's trademark wit. Instead we get rehashes of old dialogue structures that are now so tired that can chant along with the characters the first time you see an episode.

Worse yet, I have finally grown tired of the smug tone of Sorkin's writing (once in strayed out of "The West Wing"'s soothing championing of my personal political beliefs). The third episode of the season spent a considerable amount of time condescending to people who lack the education or interest to appreciate the Italian theatrical tradition of commedia dell'arte, but meanwhile every single character mispronounced the term (as commedia dell'art). I don't know - to me, ill-informed pomposity and arrogance are worse than garden variety ignorance. Furthermore, the episode featured a scathing comparison of cocaine and alcohol abuse, in which Bradley Whitford's character claims that as a cocaine use he only hurt himself , whereas a drunk driver endangers every other person on the road. Now I am hardly a friend to alcohol use, and I couldn't feel more strongly about the irresponsibility of driving drunk. It seems to me morally suspect, however, to pretend that cocaine, a drug steeped in violence, exploitation and social upheaval, has only one victim, the user. This is the singular self-absorption of privilege.

Nitpicking apart, "Studio 60" could be much better. The characters all still seem like Sorkin mouthpieces, which was seldom the case on "West Wing" or "Sports Night." Both Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry are immensely talented (as evidenced by their ability to escape merely replicating two of the most well-known characters in television history, Josh and Chandler), and several promising members of the cast are barely being used (D.L. Hughley???). I'm rooting for it. For a little while longer, at least.

In happier, albeit less televisual news, we went to see our most anticipated movie of the fall, Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep." We are both fascinated by Gondry's visual wit and crafty (in both senses of that word) aesthetic. We haven't yet seen "Block Party" or "Human Nature," but we have followed his career avidly through "The Work of Director Michel Gondry" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (both of which I highly recommend). We almost sprinted to the theatre on the first day we could see it together.

What can I say? Even the trailers were exciting. John Cameron Mitchell (of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" fame) appeared in a preview of his new movie "Shortbus," explaining how the sexually explicit film was developed. Then came a trailer for the latest installment of Michael Apted's engrossing documentary series, "49 Up." I became so agitated I nearly jumped out of my seat, ran down the aisle, and flung myself at the screen in mothlike ecstasy.

The film itself was much more experimental and less coherent than Gondry's previous efforts, but it still showed all of the filmic ingenuity that we have come to expect. It focuses on the experiences of Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), an exuberantly delusional young man who returns to Paris from Mexico after his father's death, speaking virtually no French, living in his late father's apartment, sleeping in his childhood bed, falling in love with his equally quirky neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and filtering the primal psychodramas triggered by all these powerful events through a vivid dream life. So vivid, in fact, that he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the borders between his dreams and reality - in his dreams he can swim out his window through a landscape made of paper towel rolls, but in reality he can create (as a gift for Stephanie) a one second time machine that minutely changes your experience of time, social rhythm and causality. I can't help but notice that you've never made me a one second time machine, I whisper accusingly to Dan. To his credit, Dan responded to Gondry's narrative experiments with a more unstinting good will than I did. As he pointed out, the delight of the film is that we become increasingly unsure where the boundaries lie, and begin to feel just as unmoored as Stephane. Causality never works quite as it should - time leaps and skips unevenly and characters react against the grain of convention. What should be a straightforward love story when you unfurl all the complications (think of "Eternal Sunshine"'s crablike approach to romance) is in fact a battle between narcissism and connection. In Stephanie's harshest and her most affectionate moments alike, we remain unsure about whether what we are witnessing is just wish fulfillment on Stephane's part. Does she even exist, or is Stephanie just Stephane with a difference, the crucial "I"?

An apostrophe, with links

O LibraryThing ! O constant purveyor of new internet delights! Thanks to the now not-so-new forums feature, I have found a seemingly endless stream of new procrastinatory strategies. Not least of these is the Blessed BookMooch , which has suddenly transformed me from a manic book-hoarder growling defensively in front of a padlocked bookcase to a person who thinks that giving away books is the most entertaining possible way to spend an afternoon (Why? Because I get unread books in return, of course.). But now, a new source of delight, which speaks directly to my love of making lists and incrementalized reading: DailyLit .*

DailyLit is a website that takes public-domain works of literature (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama) and breaks them up into convenient bite-size morsels that it then gently feeds you (daily, as you might very well guess) by email. So you can read "Don Quixote" daily (a feat that I have long been attempting to accomplish with my own hard copy, with only quixotic success**) in a mere 448 parts, Dante's "Inferno" in 38 parts, or Aristotle's "Poetics" in a measly 19 parts. I am currently tackling three works: Shaw's "Major Barbara" (he really has such an immense body of work that I have barely scratched the surface after years studying drama), Freud's "Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex" (I have just reached his account of bisexuality), and Shakespeare's sonnets (tastily portioned out one-a-day, the perfect amount). Limiting myself to just three showed considerable restraint, I thought.

*As you can see, I am attempting to expand my blogging repetoire to include such newfangled doohickies as links. And footnotes.
**I have an uncomfortable habit of figuring the act of reading classics in the terms of the texts. When I read "Moby Dick" I made an insufferable number of references to the blasted tome being my white whale.