Monday, August 29, 2005

A Medium Blizzard In A Moral Universe

I haven’t seen any new movies lately. I’ve re-watched a few flicks between writing and other life crap including, one of my favorites, Alexander Payne’s ABOUT SCHMIDT ‘cause a friend had never seen it.

I was reminded how Scott Tobias really nailed SCHMIDT in his Onion A.V. Club review: “In one of the many simultaneously funny and heartbreaking scenes in Alexander Payne’s wonderful ‘About Schmidt,’ recently retired Omaha insurance salesman Jack Nicholson steals away to a local Dairy Queen and orders a medium Blizzard. That he has to sneak off from his wife (June Squibb) to do it is telling enough; that he treats himself to a medium instead of a large speaks volumes about his character's diminished sense of self-worth.”

“Medium Blizzard” seems to really sum it up. So much so that Tobias brought it up again in his reviews of Payne's Schmidt follow-up SIDEWAYS: “Payne (Election) defines his universe through these sorts of wry behavioral observations; in his last film, ‘About Schmidt,’ Jack Nicholson's order at an Omaha Dairy Queen says more about him than reams of dialogue would have accomplished.” Yep, that medium Blizzard really made an impact on Tobias.

As well it should - the most effective devices in character presentation are the tiny seemingly meaningless day-to-day decisions and off the cuff behavior that speaks volumes as Tobias says. “The Devil is in the details” as the expression goes.

I’m still making my way through the 4th season of Six Feet Under, which is a good example of the little-things-say-so-much deal I was just babblin’ about. One particular intense episode, “That's My Dog” (involving Fisher Funeral-home family member David being abducted by a crackhead con man), which originally aired last summer struck me as both outrageously manipulative and wickedly brilliant.

I know it can be seen as an extremely geeky process, but I watched it a second time with the commentary track by director Alan Poul. Poul addressed viewers’ negative reactions, told me things that were intended as fantasy but I wrongly interpreted as reality, and pointed out an excellent article written by Emily Nussbaum in New York Magazine that anyone with even a passing interest in the show should check out: “Captive Audience” (New York Metro 8/04)

At one point during his insightful and economically worded commentary, Poul also touchingly said: “You put stuff out there in order to get a reaction from the world with the best of intentions and what you get back is often not what you expect or deserve or even consider to be an answer.

There is such a thing as a cry that goes unheard but all that added up does not mean we're not living in a moral universe.”

That immediately brought to mind this Woody Allen quote: “An artist creates his own moral universe” (from Allen’s 1994 comedy BULLETS OVER BROADWAY).

Definitely heady stuff, though on the other hand - in its obnoxious glib quick wham-bam style an episode of Family Guy that aired earlier tonight made a jab at Six Feet Under. In one of their patented cut-away gags an intestinal worm says: “You know, I’m 3 weeks old, my world view spans no further than the walls of this dog's intestines and I still find Six Feet Under pretentious.”

Take that Alan Ball! From an astute New York Magazine appraisal to some TV criticism voiced by a cartoon worm I think I can see the takeaway balance. Anyway, I need to go and get a medium Blizzard. Actually, maybe just a small one. Depends on if I can steal away I guess.

More later...

Saturday, August 27, 2005

BROKEN FLOWERS And More Random Babble

The most recent movie I’ve seen in the theaters was BROKEN FLOWERS, the new Bill Murray flick directed by Jim Jarmusch. It seems to be another entry in the minimalist phase of Murray's career. In earlier work like MEATBALLS, STRIPES, or GHOSTBUSTERS, Murray’s wise cracking persona worked every angle. Now he appears to be so jaded and too tired to even approach any angle.

Murray even has to be cajoled into this slight premise - revisiting past loves because of an unsigned letter saying he may have a 20 year old son- by an over-eager neighbor (Jeffery Wright). As much as I was amused by certain moments (Jessica Lange’s bit as an animal communicator particularly) I thought the movie was just okay. Not especially involving as Murray's character and a lot of the movie seemed underwritten.

Scenes made out of shots, like the one above, of Murray sitting inactive in his house seem artsy for artsiness sake, and the whole project feels like its piggy-backing on Sophia Coppola’s LOST IN TRANSLATION, which featured a much more nuanced performance by the same former SNL cast member.

Anyway, apart from plowing through the 4th season of Six Feet Under this last week, I also watched Igmar Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973). Because of a recent episode of Ebert and Roeper that told me about Bergman’s last film, SARABAND, updates the story of SCENES’ central characters played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, I decided that I had to put it in my Netflix queue. 

SCENES was originally broadcast as a 6-part TV series in Sweden in the early ‘70s, but Bergman also edited the episodes together into a theatrical version that was released worldwide. The theatrical version, clocking in at 2 hours and 40-something minutes long, is what I chose to watch. I was struck about how close Woody Allen’s HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1995) was to it. I mean I knew Allen was a Bergman disciple but damn! SCENES’s documentary like set-up, the long involved and tortured conversational break-downs, and the probing close-ups are all used to great effect in HUSBANDS.

Film historian and supposed Bergman scholar Peter Cowie told me in the Criterion Collection edition’s sole special feature that it was best to watch in segments. But I watched it all in one sitting because I wanted to take it all in, then promptly return it so I could get more Six Feet Under discs.

However, I found that there was no way to rush a viewing of this pristine movie and found myself going back to re-watch various segments. I got wrapped up in the emotional turmoil surrounding the relationship of Josephson and Ullman’s Johann and Marriane so much that I decided that Six Feet Under could wait.

Now I feel like I should put the longer TV version in my queue. Damn my completist minded film addiction! Or actually, thank the Heavens for it. Not sure what I'd do with these random hours otherwise. Now with hope, Bergman’s 2003 follow-up SARABAND will come to my area.

More later...