Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Archive for December, 2010

New Year’s Eve 2010

Posted by Gerald on December 31, 2010

Some thoughts as I sit alone on New Year’s Eve.

We’ve hit an important moment of healing in the cultural wars that divide us.  I’m speaking here of the debate between the vast majority of people who thought that the new millennium and century began on Jan. 1, 2000 and those of us who can count who knew it didn’t start until Jan. 1, 2001.  Well, that is over now, because both sides would agree that the first decade ends tonight with the last day of 2010.  Our long national nightmare is at an end.  My thoughts tonight are more about the last 10 years than the last year alone.

I’m having trouble thinking of a single serious problem we’ve resolved as a species, or even as a nation, in the last ten years.  Climate change plows onward and our collective response is to take a page from the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook.  We keep trying to Disbelieve the problem away even as it eats us.  Ditto Social Security.  Perhaps we could all join together and watch the High Brazil sequence of Erik the Viking as an object lesson on the effectiveness of this strategy.

We were led in to the worse economic disaster since the great depression by businessmen, political leaders, and our own greed.  We’ve responded by allowing these same individuals to write the new laws governing their actions.

In 2001 we went into Afghanistan and in 2003 we went into Iraq.  In both cases critics used the word “quagmire” and cited our experiences in Vietnam.  In both cases those critics were attacked as un-patriotic and the comparisons to Vietnam were dismissed (the voices of dismissal included, I am ashamed to say, me – though not the questioning of patriotism).  It is 2010 and still our troops are there.

I’ve been waiting for the cultural and political pendulum to swing back towards the left and it shows no sign of doing so.  I’m increasingly afraid that things are going to get very ugly in this country.  I keep thinking about Farenheit 451, a novel I believe is widely mis-understood.  It isn’t the story of a society that was subjugated by oppression, it is about a society that willingly gave up its freedom in the name of safety, convenience, and entertainment.  Society gave up its books because they were boring and hard.  Next week I’ll go to an opening session of my college and will probably hear again about the need to accommodate our student’s unique needs and I’ll think of that anti-intellectual society Bradbury depicted, and then I’ll shiver a bit… and I’ll go back to my office and see what is happening on Facebook.  I’ll go home where I’ll see a mass emotional commitment to celebrities and the figures of reality TV and remember the talking walls of Montag’s house and I’ll shiver a bit… and then I’ll turn on Netflix.

On a more personal level, at the beginning of this decade I had two living parents and three living grandparents, none of whom are with me anymore.  I did not have a full-time job, now I do.  With a few exceptions I did not know most of the people I would consider my closest friends today.  I drove a 1982 Ford Mustang, I did not own a single dvd, and no one I knew owned a cell-phone.  I still had a computer with a Pentium I chip.  I believed in a god even though I had to keep jumping through hoops in my own thinking to do so.

I guess I was much more optimistic about the world in general and much more pessimistic about my own life a decade ago.  Now the balance has shifted the other way.

Finally, we are now one decade into the 21st century, and still I have one big question that I’ve had for ten years now:

Where the hell is my flying car?

Happy New Year.

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True Grit

Posted by Gerald on December 23, 2010

I went to see the Coen Brother’s adaptation of True Grit yesterday.  My good friends Dana and Richard were there as well.  We saw it at the first showing at 11:30 am on Wednesday so the theater was less than packed.  There were a number of adolescents in the audience and I really wondered what they thought of the film because this was not a slam-bang action flick.  Instead it was a mature western with a good story and great characters and acting.  I’d say it is the best western I’ve seen since Unforgiven and maybe the best film I’ve seen this year.

First let me say that I am a fan of the 1969 version.  John Wayne yelling “Fill your hand you sonuvabitch!” and riding into the climactic gunfight (yes, there is a lot after that with caves and snakes, but seriously – isn’t that the real climax of the film?) is one of the iconic moments of movie westerns.  I think Wayne and director Henry Hathaway created a broad and enjoyable caricature of the John Wayne Western Hero that was entertaining in and of itself, but then occasionally rose above it.  Add to this an excellent supporting cast (well, except for Glen Campbell, who has criticized his own acting in that film) and wonderful cinematography and you have one of the great westerns of all time.  John Wayne dominates this film as he did so many of his pictures.

As a fan of that movie I experienced an interesting mix of familiarity and discovery while watching the Coen Brother’s adaptation.  In terms of story, sometimes even in terms of shots, the two movies are very similar.  What makes this so different is the deft touches in the direction and acting.  Jeff Bridges is excellent in this movie.  He makes Rooster Cogburn into a less slapstick sort of character.  He is still heroic, but in a rather different way – more brutal and less endearing, but also more real.  In a scene almost straight from the 1969 version, a drunken Rooster Cogburn falls from his horse.  In the original this was played for comedy, here it comes across as a painful reminder of the flaws and frailty of this man.  Still, the heroic sense of the character comes through strongly at the end during the long race to save Mattie’s life.  Bridges is able to bring all of these elements – heroism, brutality, and weakness – together in an excellent performance.   Comparing Matt Damon’s portrayal of Le Boeuf with Glen Campbell’s seems almost unfair, but the character becomes much less of a seeming afterthought and more a part of the whole story in this film.  Barry Pepper turns in an excellent turn in a short amount of screen time as Ned Pepper (as did Robert Duvall in the original).  As in so many of his films, the master of making much of small parts is Josh Brolin, here as the villanous Tom Chaney. 

The biggest difference is the character of Mattie Ross.  Kim Darby gave a memorable turn in that role in 1969 and held her own in scenes with Wayne, which was no mean feat.  I though the much younger Hailee Steinfeld actively dominated many of her scenes.  True Grit is the story of her adventure, but I think that is lost by the end of the 1969 version simply because of the extent to which Wayne takes over the screen.  The new adaptation keeps bringing us back to Mattie as the protagonist and Steinfeld’s performance is strong enough to support that.  While Jeff Bridges is identified as the star of this movie, I think this movie really belongs to Hailee Steinfeld.  I’m looking forward to what this actress will deliver in the future.

As much as I still love the 1969 version, the new adaptation is a more solid movie.  It achieves that rare balance in todays movies of character and action.  It also achieves that sense of “authenticity” (or perhaps verisimilitude) that modern westerns frequently seek but without the ponderous seriousness that comes with so many (Deadwood is another example of success in that area, while The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford comes to mind as a failure, although one should have expected a ponderous film given that ponderous title).  In this adaptation we see another great piece of work by the Coen Brothers.  It plays to their strengths – the visual appeal of the west, the mixture of comedy and drama, somewhat eccentric characters – all things you see done well in their best films.

This movie has Oscar written all over it (Although its excellent score has been eliminated from consideration by the Academy due to the unforgivable crime of including elements from 19th century hymns.)  I hope it garners the awards it deserves.  It is a film that takes the best elements of the classic western and the human reality of the best drama and uses them together.

Yep, I liked it.

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Virtual Housekeeping

Posted by Gerald on December 8, 2010

I made a bit of a change to my blog page here.  I’ve removed my links to the WordPress Political Bloggers Alliance.  Just to be open, I’m doing this because I haven’t been acting as a political blogger for years and so I feel continuing to tout myself as one is a lie.  I’m not doing this out of any bad feeling towards those who are.  What I’ve been writing has for the most part been personal, professional, or sometimes cultural, but rarely political.  This just seems more honest.

If I keep up this current spate of activity I might change some more stuff, but maybe not.  I think most of my tiny readership are getting this via FB anyway, so the appearance of this blog is insignificant..

As with so many things, we’ll see.

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AFI Post #1 PostScript

Posted by Gerald on December 7, 2010

A minor continuation on the theme of the group experience of movies:

This weekend I finally watched “The Hangover”.  Many of my friends really enjoyed it, so when I saw it was about to start on one of the movie channels (Cinemax?) Saturday night I thought I’d watch it.  I found it funny, but not overly so.

The thing is, I was alone at home when I watched it.  I think that this sort of comedy – maybe most movie comedy – requires that group response to reach its height of effectiveness.  It takes a really great joke to be funny when there is no one around to share the humor and to create that emotional feedback.

Booze might have helped too.

Back to “Casablanca”:

I was struck on this viewing by how un-heroic Rick is as the film opens.  I think this is particularly notable in his drunken encounter with Ilsa.  He is petty and weak in that scene.  I’m not sure Bogart does the best job of conveying that I’ve ever seen, but I have some real respect for him and for Michael Curtiz for being willing to go there.  Being willing to play a “bad guy” is one thing, but being willing to play weak and petty is something else, particularly in that day and age.

I think this weakness creates a strong contrast with the ending.  Not so much with Rick’s heroism in standing off Major Strasser, but his heroism in sacrificing what he wants (Ilsa) for the greater good.  Of course this is one of the things that had to help create the reaction to the film when it was released in 1943.  Millions of people were playing out their own moments of decision, parting, and sacrifice as that film was screened.  I couldn’t help but think about that today on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

One last thing – this film is seen as one of the great romances in Hollywood history.  Still, I would argue that there is a relationship in the film whose workings are far more significant to the story than Rick and Ilsa’s love affair.  I refer of course to the “bro-mance” between Rick and Renault.  It is the transformation of their friendly antagonism into a partnership that provides the real climax for the film.  I’m struck by the idea that the dynamic there – rivalry and tension that results in an eventual pairing – is the same dynamic we can see in many other notable romantic comedies (“The Philadelphia Story” comes to mind).  So maybe the great love story here isn’t between Rick and Ilsa, whose relationship ends on the airfield, but between Rick and Renault, whose (new) relationship begins there.

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AFI 100 Plus – Entry 1: Casablanca

Posted by Gerald on December 6, 2010

It has been more than awhile since I wrote anything here.  I’m starting a project as a way to get back into this blogging thing.  We’ll see what happens.

I recently had a not-terribly-original idea for a “New Year’s Resolution” for 2011 – to watch all of the AFI top 100 films.  Shortly after that, the blog thing got attached to it.  Then I remembered I hate New Year’s Resolutions, so I figured I’d start now.  I also though watching and writing a film a week was a more realistic goal that a film every 3.65 days.  I’m less interested in writing reviews than in just writing about whatever associations this viewing of the film had for me.  My intention is to combine the two lists AFI released, so this will be more like the AFI top 120.  We’ll see how far I get.

AFI’s #1 film is, not surprisingly, “Citizen Kane.”  However, since I just watched #2 “Casablanca” a couple of weeks ago, I’m going to start there.

So we’ve also already established I’ll not necessarily be doing these in order.

I went to see Casablanca at the Carolina Theater in Greensboro.  A friend joined me, which is good because movies alone are just not the same, even with a theater crowd.  Casablanca is a particular favorite of mine.  I love Claude Rains and his depiction of world-weary corruption.  He shows the best and worst meanings of “gentleman” in a single performance.  I’m not going to talk much about the movie because, hey, its Casablanca – what’s there to say.

This was my first time seeing the movie in a theater, though.  There was something magical about watching that familiar opening on the “silver screen” with a roomful of people.  There is something equally magical about that sort of group experience – something I think is missing from even going to the movies today.  Maybe it is the unrelenting visual and aural assault of the modern movieplex or maybe the pacing that makes any slow savoring of the characters or story impossible, but the experience of a movie like Casablanca is very different from any film I see today.  For a short time I felt a connection with the other people in the audience (well, the guy in front of us who kept getting up, checking his cellphone, and who felt it necessary to explain the movie to his female companion, him not so much…).  I haven’t felt that in years.  Instead it usually feels like we are all here alone together.  Something has changed – maybe us, maybe the movies, maybe how we interact in public spaces. 

Maybe this is just a side-effect of age, but I feel we are less than we once were.

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