Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sunday Funnies & Arts

As always, click to enlarge...

The Ghost Writer. D Roman Polanski. Ewan MacGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, John Bernthal, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, Tom Wilkison. A new movie by a major director opens when a world weary and preternaturally detached young man boards a ferry and heads to a windswept island on a job that he really doesn't want. On the island, rain falls like bullets, and he takes refuge in a menacing dwelling that raises his level of foreboding and paranoia. Slowly, he realizes that nothing there is as it seems and begins to look for help from sources once close to the inhabitants of the home.

How could Martin Scorsese go so wrong with this premise in Shutter Island while Roman Polanski goes so right with it in The Ghost Writer?

The Ghost Writer is one of the most disciplined and aesthetically exacting movies that I've seen. Polanski had a vision for it, knew exactly what he wanted, and followed through to the letter. The interiors are incredibly striking, all hard angles and grays, silvers, and faded colors that give a steely precision to every scene. The screenplay is literate and witty, filled with quips. ("I've never understood the purpose of white wine.") The pacing and rhythm are so precise that not only does each scene have a purpose, the length of each scene is exactly right in terms of its role in propelling the narrative. Abstract art lends unsettling undercurrent of looming violence as the ghost writer draws close to the mystery at the heart of the story.

The story is simple enough. After the suicide of the ghost writer of the memoir of former British Prime Minister Andrew Lang (Brosnan), The Ghost (MacGregor) accepts a one-month contract to finish the job. When he arrives at the Lang home on Martha's Vineyard, he's greeted by Lang's assistant, the prim, repressed, and archly named Amelia Bly (Cattrall, cast against type) who displays reluctance for The Ghost to even look at the draft of the memoir. When Lang's unblinking, cold-blooded wife Ruth (Williams, who is outstanding) enters, the tension between her and Amelia is palpable. Once Lang arrives, writer and politician commence work immediately.

But nothing goes smoothly. Lang interrupts work to take a phone call that dissolves into a furious argument (unheard by us, since we witness it from The Ghost's perspective through a picture window). The Ghost finds materials hidden by his predecessor, but they seem innocuous. Even the lie they expose appears unimportant. An acerbic local (the 94-year old Wallach, as vital as ever) assures The Ghost that the suicide had unexplained and covered up circumstances. Ruth wife befriends The Ghost for reasons he can't determine, seeking emotional shelter from him when her husband is accused of war crimes. A sinister Wilkinson shrugs his shoulders at any connection between him and Lang, a connection that seems apparent until Lang convincingly denies it. Throughout, details and suspense accumulate imperceptibly until they burst forth in a flood the carries Lang and The Ghost along with it, leading to a convincing twist that only a writer could (literally) decipher.

You don't see movies like this any more. These days, it takes a certain courage and confidence to make a suspense movie without thrill rides and explosions, that's instead driven instead by plot, character, screenplay, and artistic vision. Hitchcock did it all the time, of course, and The Ghost Writer stands with the master's best work. It's that good...

Prior to the film, we saw a trailer for Michael Douglas' new movie, which is a sequel to Wall Street. I couldn't help but think of his father Kirk and that actor's unique presence. Has there ever been an actor as at ease in front of a camera as Kirk Douglas? He was subtle and convincing, and one could never see him act. With an indescribable intelligence and character that belied the matinee-idol looks, Kirk Douglas was a one-of-kind actor who could be inspiring, agonized, troubled, doubtful, and even cynical. He performed with grace and integrity and invariably essayed performances that any aspiring actor could learn from...

Regular readers of Citizen K. know that I've often referenced the magazine Offbeat as one of my primary guides to New Orleans music. Like many Offbeat fans, I was dismayed to see the above cover on its March issue. Young people may not know that "Strange Fruit" is a Billie Holiday classic about lynching, sung in an especially mournful and despairing tone even for her. The magazine cover is at best insensitive and is arguably a racist act. Readers responded predictably, and the magazine answered with one of those patronizing non-apologetic apologies that only fan the flames:
We didn't realize the phrase "strange fruit" has the same power in 2010 that it did when lynching was a more contemporary threat...We believed that in 2010, the phrase "strange fruit" could be used without automatically evoking the Billie Holiday song and its subject matter.
The problem here is that they are simply not being credible. It's virtually impossible for a southern music magazine to not know that the phrase "strange fruit" evokes the Holiday song. Readers responded with predictable renewed fury; the editors became defensive, calling its detractors racist and -- yes -- blaming the media (another magazine wrote about the cover). The continued publication of Offbeat is very likely in question.

As near as I can tell in the two years that I've been reading it, Offbeat does not show any bias against black musicians. They've turned me on to artists as disparate as Glen David Andrews, Big Sam, John Boutte, and Cedric Watson. But sometimes you've just got be standup, admit that you did something that is part of the problem, ask for forgiveness, promise not to do it again, and hope to move on. And if you have to absorb a few licks in the process, well, you created the problem in the first place.

I would really miss Offbeat if this controversy does it in. The publication is an unflagging yet honestly critical champion of NOLA music. It's demise would leave a gap. But the way they are handling this is likely driving away readers in droves. They've got to quit being defensive and listen to what people are saying or pay the price...


Foxessa said...

I've read The Ghostwriter, which was an excellent novel in every way. Though I haven't seen the film, people who have all agree with you ....

Himself has often written for, and been written about, in Offbeat. This is greatly distressing.

In terms of your previous two entries, have you seen this in today's issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine? The conclusions from this kind of citizens' vigilante - mob action has bad implications across the board, for this kind of punishment can be, and often is, as easily organized against dissenters as against a man who may have sexually harrassed a young girl. This is what we get in a nation without real law, without enforcement of rule and regulation and rife corruption. It also allows the ruling class a splendid derail strategy: this kind of cruelty and punishment allowed to be enacted upon the 'little guys' so the still-exploited other little guys feel they've gotten something back. Like the teabaggers. See it here: China's Cyberpossee.

Love, C.

K. said...

I've been going around with my sister-in-law over the morality of seeing a Polanski film. For some reason, he doesn't make my skin crawl the way that Woody Allen does. Plus at his best Polanski is at the top of the heap, especially with Robt Altman having passed. The purity of the filmmaking in this movie is unsurpassed.

I just cannot get over the way Offbeat is handling the reaction the cover. (Your comment on their blog was excellent, BTW.) It's really and truly brain dead.

Thanks for the link to the Times article. I'll be sure to read it.

Roy said...

Re: the first Calvin - that one perfect hit is always worth all the misses and maybe even the sold soul.

Re: Auth's "the ideas are equal" cartoon - Nothing can make me angrier than that whole "teach the controversy" nonsense. PZ Myers just had a link to a Yahoo article about fundie-biased homeschooling science texts which quoted educator Jerry Coyne; Jerry wasn't exactly kind about the quality of the education in science texts put out by Apologia Ministries and the Bob Jones University. And Jerry got a lot of flack from the fundies (note that I DO NOT include all, or even a majority of, Christians under that banner) on his own blog. But I especially liked a response by one commenter on Jerry's blog to one of the attackers, regarding the whole "give a balanced view, teach the controversy":

Why don’t we teach astrology along side astronomy or alchemy with chemistry.
Have you ever heard of the theory of gravity, theory of flight, germ disease theory?
Creationism is not science, evolution is science. Why won’t your church teach evolution in its Sunday school classes? Teach the controversy Brian.

Amen! (Sorry, that cartoon definitely hit one of my hot buttons!)

The fact that Roman Polanski is most likely an unsavory character and fully deserves being extradited to the US and punished does not stop his movies from being great. That's like calling for a boycott on Liszt's music because he was a slimeball who screwed anything in a skirt. In the end, great art transcends its creator.

And I find it really hard to believe that anybody who edits a music magazine could possibly miss the implications of that "Strange Fruit" title and the photo that illustrates it. They screwed up big time and should man up and admit it!

K. said...

You echo the universal feeling about Offbeat, except for trolls who carry about p.c. liberalism.

I just read through some of Coyne's blog. Separating out the truly vicious stuff from the religious sickos, there's too much ad hominem stuff from both sides. Also, many of the people on the science side seem to have as a great a misunderstanding of the word "myth" as the people on the fundamentalist side have of the word "theory."

I believe that if you are going to engage in this debate, it's important to adopt a detached tone worthy of science. Insert emotion into it -- no matter what you might feel -- and you're fighting on the other side's terrain. I also think it's a rhetorical error to get drawn into detailed back-and-forth arguments about a particular scientific point. They're usually prepared for that.

It makes more sense to attack the weakest link in the chain, which is their line of debate. I actually had some success once when someone came at me with "evolution is just a theory (opinion)" line. In neutral terms, I explained why a scientific theory was not opinion, and why evolution was a theory and ID was in fact an opinion. I doubt that I changed anyone's mind, but I could tell from the thread that I had effectively shut down this particular tactic.

On the other hand, there's the arguable perspective of many scientists that to argue the point at all is to legitimize a flat-earth position.

RobinB said...

I thought the Billie Holiday video was just amazing--thanks for putting it in. Can't wait to see Ghost Writer--Polanski is in a class by himself and Woody doesn't come close. Unfortunately, we saw Alice today which was, forgive me Tim Burton, wretched.

K. said...

Tim Burton has never registered with me, either.