Lars von Trying (Dear Wendy)

With his small, worried eyes and seemingly toothless jaw, English-born Jamie Bell has become cinema's poster child for a very American strain of pathos. In the Green Day video, he’s the generic beleaguered US soldier in Iraq; in this summer’s Chumscrubber, he’s the disenfranchised suburban teen; in last fall’s Undertow he suffers as the oldest child in a Southern rural family held hostage by good ole boy masculinity. And in this fall’s upcoming Dear Wendy, he plays Dick, an orphaned teen stranded in an ultra-generic Southeast mining town, who falls in love with his gun, (dear) Wendy.

That Bell, 19, hails from England is hardly a coincidence. Very few American male actors, especially young ones, ever transcend the brash boyishness that damns performances as hopelessly glib; Bell’s long-faced stoicism, a Brit staple, suits heavy fare to a T. No doubt he’s less encumbered by the American publicity machine than most US actors his age. And that outsider status, coupled with that real-man wad of invisible tobacco lodged in his cheek, renders him an ideal spokesperson for more controversial social criticism.

Such as Lars von Trier' script Dear Wendy, which, much like von Trier' Dogville (2003), offers social criticism galore — and almost nothing else. Back when von Trier and other Danish filmmakers formed Dogme95, that stark departure from Hollywood machinations couldn’t have been more welcome, but it’s been interesting to see, as the major helmers of the movement have moved on, how they have ran out of gas. Some, as in the case of Italian for Beginners writer/director Lone Scherfig, have faltered, but gorgeously, as they incorporated more painterly elements into their storytelling. Some, like Dear Wendy director Thomas Vintenberg made use of Dogme’s rigid mandates to distill a pure emotionality, as in his wonderfully wrenching Celebration, but haven’t found a way to do so since. And then there’s von Trier himself, who, it turns out, benefited from Dogme95’s stark lack of affect because it suited his natural cold-fishiness. He's such a cold fish that everyone involved in his projects channels their inner cold fish. For some, such as Nicole Kidman, that’s not much of a stretch. But poor Jamie Bell's caught in the good cop/bad cop crossfire of a Vintenberg-von Trier production. Bell’s blank humorlessness, which can be used to such fierce, good effect, reads as maddening when compiled with von Trier’s hopeless grandstanding.

The Dear Wendy screening made me regret my recent pledge to not walk out on movies anymore. Most around me, when they finished hissing and shifting relentlessly, filed out long before the credits and I looked after their backs longingly. Yes, only von Trier can summon a knee-jerk defense of the US from a room full of NY pinkojewbroadfag critics. And, no, strong responses do not unilaterally a good movie make. Von Trier’ uninformed generalizations, blueprints (literally, as he incorporates diagrams) of his diatribes about American culture, prove that.

Honestly, Vintenburg does his best with his old compatriot’s script. The stage set that von Trier undoubtedly called for is transformed into a sepia-toned square, slick with oil puddles and crumbling small-town capitalism. Despite the classic, ludicrously monotonic von Trier voiceover overdetermining every screen moment, Vintenburg does coax out three dimensions — making good, if perhaps also-ironic use of character quirks and Tarantino-like explication. But he can’t transcend the project's wild limitations. Here’s the basic plot: Dick, a young teen, is mentally or emotionally disabled in a never-identified way. His mom is gone. His dad, a man's man miner, doesn’t dig on him. He’s mostly raised by his black maid Cristobel (what modern mining town denizen can afford any maid, let alone a painful Mammy character?). He clerks at a grocery store run by a sniveling Jew who fears town gangs no one’s ever seen. One day, the boy finds a pistol. He falls in love, and meets another who loves a gun. They form the Dandies, a cult of pacificist gunlovers who are all former losers so emboldened by what they’re packing that they don’t need the weapons' actual power. They dance together in a temple of their own creation, study forensic psychologists’ educational films and weapon history, recite odes to their firearms, drink port, (oddly) cheer each other in a patented Brideshead stutter, and wear the ruffled-shirt, big-booted uniform of the American Revolutionaries. Until a bad black boy who’s actually killed steps into the mess and onto Dick’s toes by manhandling his beloved Wendy. And the world ends in four-alarm gunfire despite the intentions of dull-witted sheriff Bill Pullman.

Ye Gods. It’s obvious but I’ll say it here: The irony of von Trier, who freely admits he’s never been to the United States, is that he traffics heavily in all the worst stereotypes he’s garnered about the US from the exact source, the media, that he includes in his critiques — and then regurgitates those stereotypes in these weirdly improvisational, highly offensive ways that don’t even make sense. The irony of von Trier is that he’s such a ignorant, remorseless bully that if he’d actually been born and bred in the US, he’d no doubt be one of the meat-and-potaters, Bible-thumping, self-righteous, small-minded, frothing-at-the-mouth motherfuckers he lobs at whom he lobs so many spitballs.

In a conversation between von Trier and Vintenberg included in the press notes, Vintenburg acknowledges his discomfort with the lack of apparent logic or intention that motivates film’s principle events. “Ya, I don’t think that matters much,” von Trier admits blithely in response. He goes on to cite one of his chief influences as Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), which makes a painful amount of sense. At least Kubrick generally didn’t bother to bury his misanthropy in political stances, but I’ve learned the hard way to see a Kubrick fetish for the red flag that it is. Here’s a guy who generally found humankind, especially womankind, repellent in its messy spill of bodily fluids like blood and cum and tears, and he made his career photographing his distaste beautifully. Von Trier, with his pared-down sets and plots and character sketches, takes that distaste one step further (much like that Mormon wanker Neil Lebute): with bare-bones dialogue, plotlines and characters, he sacrifices any plausibility, let alone humanity, in order to campaign on his neverending platform that people suck. Ain’t no one, not Vintenerg nor Bell nor even congenitally genial Pullman, can sweeten up that shit.


Being R. Kelly

It's beyond me why I watch dumb shit like the VMAs, but R&B singer R.Kelly, the diamond buried in the coal of Diddy (excuse me, Seandoleeza Rice)'s stocking, earned those three hours of my life. Overtly lip-synching to his own 300,000-part soap-operetta "Trapped in the Closet," Kelly flung his body around the ramparts of a mostly bare set as he acted out the roles of a wronged wife, a wronged husband, a wronged gay boyfriend, and a wronged thug lover. Finger wagging, hands on hips, neck swiveling: the jailbait maven resembled nothing so much as a Malkovich marionette in Spike Jonze's first feature. An intentional social satire, I'm quite sure.


More Boys-Will-Be-Boys Bluster (Entourage, Wedding Crashers)

A few more notes in the vein of my last post.

This week, Slate’s brilliant Dana Stevens has her way with the Entourage boys, laying out just exactly how she’d fix up that ode to young-dumb-full-of-cum. High on her list: flesh out at least one female character. Obviously the relentless appeal of Entourage is the chick-deflecting boy-on-boy bonding, and that it's not hell bent on self-monitoring with that po-mo wink that sinks so many other telegenic ships. But I admire Stevens for genuinely not digging on the show, because I can’t fall in with her. I first watched it at the home of a rather premier rock critic and thought, I must admit — it’s so rock critic to dig this arrested-development traviata. But then I ate my words, most likely the way many men surrendered grudgingly to Sex and the City while their girlfriends glued themselves to it. Both shows, at their core, do what TV does best: illustrate a real-life dynamic (male or female friendships) against an eminently desirable backdrop. It's entertaining as all get out to watch the boys wield their puny, TV-sized swords. Plus, Vince is cute. (What is it with me and Vincents this week?)

That said, Stevens is right. The patriarchy — would calling it cockacracy render this concept more, uh, palatable? — is such that no one connected to Entourage has thought to include a few women that aren’t just plot-movers. The always-capable Debi Mazar sinks her tiny, feral teeth into her tiny, feral role as Vinnie's publicist, for sure, but it’d be just as easy to give more backstory to her as it has been to give to agent Ari Gold (an ideal role for type A Jeremy Piven, heretofore relegated to the premature-baldy special: la sidekick). I ain’t going to pretend that Sex and the City features any straight male characters who don't play second fiddle in our girls’ urban orchestra, but because the girls view men with a more complicated cocktail of fear, confusion, and admiration (not just lust, in other words), the male characters benefit from greater depth. Big and Aidan are drawn with broad strokes, for sure, but generic boytoys they are not.

Also on a loosely related note: someone on David Poland’s Hot Blog pointed out that Wedding Crashers was marred by the romantic love object’s brother, Todd Cleary, a horrendous gay stereotype. Since the Hot Blog’s normally a hotblogbed for said boys-will-be-boys bluster, the comment took me aback — mostly because I couldn't believe I didn’t bother to sputter about that character myself. The sheer hatefulness of both the character and the protagonists’ reaction to him (deranged, cringing artist throws himself on Vince Vaughn, who shrinks in terror) sinks any legitimacy of the relentlessly male angle of the film. The aggrandizing of the boyish antics (stone-cold dogging of chicks, mostly) seems less excusable when the film's underlying old-school, geneneralized male anxiety translates into a protest that just because it’s about male friendship doesn't mean it's gay or anything. Nah, they're real men.


That I didn’t bother to complain about the Todd plotline only shows how inured I’ve become to sacrificing my politics, empathy, or even self in order to gain the experience a movie intends. What passes for clever is backbackbackbacklashing more every day and sometimes I find I'm holding that whip.


Funny Is as Funny Fucks (Aristocrats, Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Baxter)

With the exception of The Baxter, which comes out this week and has thus been appropriately relegated to the end-of-summer sloppy seconds, the comedies released this summer have been distinguished by three qualities. To wit:

1. They are unabashedly, almost histrionically male. (An unshocking fact; pedestrian even)
2. They are dirty: chock-full of eff words and plastic titties and swollen cocks. (This is less pedestrian on the heels of the born-again malaise that’s swept the nation.)
3. They are funny. (Distinctly unpedestrian; shocking even)

Wedding Crashers, particularly the first 30 minutes, is genuinely amusing. It may be fratty as all-get out, but count on marble-mouthed, swarthy (part Lebanese, according to imdb) Vince Vaughn to tromp all over the bleached-out DC status quo, with his Bluto-boy cake-stuffing, wildly effusive back-slapping subversions of age-old WASP esthetics. In the grand tradition of Hollywood comedies, Crashers falls off like a bad wig in the last 20 minutes, but I still saw it twice. I’ve always had a soft spot for lanky, funny boys, and ham-handed V.V. may be my new boyfriend. The movie is unabashedly male, of course: shot from an unremittingly masculine perspective and all about the maddeningly overdocumented struggle of American boys fighting maturation.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin takes the cake when it comes to slavishly documenting that struggle. It’s also funny as hell and highwater, its plot doesn’t merely serve as the necessary filler between gags, and it doesn’t fall out the end. It actually ends on an insanely high note; Paul Rudd wiggling his always surprisingly silly body to “The Age of Aquarius” is a high note to me, anyway.

It’s both a relief and terribly frustrating that all good-boy pretenses have been dropped in this summer's batch of comedies. The chief example of this is that comedians' valentine to themselves, The Aristrocrats, a deft exploration of the ultimate meta joke. I’m glad Hollywood has returned to its Caddyshack and Meatballs era of gross, rated-R, naked titty comedy. Concept comedies like Zoolander and Dodgeball go but so far (although Stiller's scent, Eau de Hack, lingers forever). That's why the loser-takes-all clunker Baxter stinks so badly. It's refreshing for films to shed their Disney-approved handcuffs to take their innuendos to their natural, uh, extensions. Furthermore, the chief conceit of all of these films is to stand those white-boy antics on their heads. Crashers' chief message can be translated to mean, "Even if you're white and male and straight, it's impossible to pass if you have an iota of taste or humor." Virgin's major selling-point is its overt assumption that men are babies, least of all the 40-year-old virgin. But self-installed criticism or not, it's still all about the boys. That's part of why Whoopie Goldberg and Sarah Silverman shone so bright in their renditions of the Aristocrats gag; fresh perspectives make old hats new. The other reason was because they both, especially Silverman (every smart guy's sloe-eyed fantasy), are high-larious. Hi. Vagina jokes are high-larious. They are!

I’m waiting for a good old mainstream comedy written by the likes of SNL molls Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Mean Girls was not only snarky in the best of ways but so very smart. While watching it, I didn’t feel the least bit like I was clamoring to be something I wasn’t — didn't feel, in other words, like I was pretending to be a forever-adolescent male who, um, runs a studio or something.


Hear Ye, Hear Ye. Ya Hear?

Jessica Hopper sounds an anti-capitalist cry, reminding us that modern feminism isn't all DIY crafts and Le Tigre.

Green Day's Wake-Up Call

I’ve never thought much of Green Day since I saw them open for Liz Phair at Roseland back in 1993 (or was it 1994?). Billie Joe Armstrong was jumping around the stage like his postpunk-monkey self when, almost as an afterthought, he unzipped his Dickies and whipped out a surprisingly thick, fake-looking schlong — really unwelcome in a room full of mid-’90s identity-politics queens. But their controversial ”Wake Me Up When September Ends” video has redeemed them hundredfold. At least.

Starring Jamie Bell and Evan Rachel Woods, the actual song doesn’t even kick in until the second minute of the 11:29 minute movie. Instead, the video begins as two young lovers murmur “I’m never going to leave you” into each other’s sandy, wind-swept hair, brows knit with sweet sincerity; limbs wrapped about each other as they romp in rolling, verdant fields: Americana at its earnest, cheesy finest. Then September ends, the song kicks in, and reality rears Armstrong’s ugly head. Woods first crashes out of their modest house, hysterically sobbing, “Tell me you didn’t do it,” and despite myself my heart sinks. Ah, when first love betrays. Bell jumps up to pacify her. But he turns out he didn’t cheat (nor is a September 11 homage on the horizon). Worse: He’s joined the armed forces. “I did this for us! I thought you’d be proud of me. I thought of all people you’d understand why I did this.”

The song starts up again then and a sepia-toned Iraqi battle scene replaces the small-town Technicolor. At first, a group of armed, anonymous soldiers, any one of whom can be Bell, storm the streets, veiled women looking on anxiously. Then we see Bell himself, peering bleakly from beneath his helmut. Shot in the leg, he goes down and the video ends with the image of a tear-streaked Woods back on high school bleachers in those rolling, green hills.

The response has been very telling. Some think it’s both heavyhanded and too apolitical. Granted, no one lights a picture of George Bush on fire. But what could be dismissed as simplistic is instead simple. Accessible rather than sentimental. Pedestrian, corny, overt, whatever. I had a lump in my throat at the end of this video.

So few stories are being told about the war that the US is actually waging right now and who ends up waging it. The video is about the armed forces' treacherous seduction of working-class America’s youth. More and more of our boys and girls are dying over there every week along with the Iraqis whose lives we continue to ruin, and most of us blogger and mainstream- and alternamedia kids alike just don’t really talk about it. Why not? Why aren’t we more upset?

Because the media is mostly still peopled by the kind of folks who can afford to go to swell schools, function in expensive urban areas on shitty salaries — and this war isn’t real to them. These are the kind of people who don’t really know too many people who have enrolled in the reserves or flat-out enlisted because they aren’t the type of people who would need to. As the middle-class becomes a thing of the past in the US, places like LA and NYC are increasingly mere press playgrounds for people who enjoy the luxury to forget about the war this country is waging. So this video is generating this kind of whiny-ass mishegos from these folks because, more than most videos, this one isn’t directed at them. It’s directed at the kind of folks with so few options that they considered the armed forces. Or, as in the case of a lot of the preteens and teens who worship Green Day, still do.

At my uncle’s funeral back in June, I found out two of my cousins’ kids are over in Iraq right now. Back in December I basically got disinvited from Christmas for going off on my cousin Sue and her husband Frank for when they let their oldest daughter enlist in the reserves. Frank actually called me “Jane Fonda” when I told them Lindsay enlisting was dangerous morally and mortally. Now Lindsay is actually over there. She’s 18 and until now, she’d never really even been out of New England. As for dead-eyed Kyle, my cousin Kim’s oldest, I already knew he was in Iraq.

The funeral was bad for Kim. Not only had Uncle Al died, but so had Kyle’s grandmother. “So he’s back, then?” I asked her. “Just for the funeral,” she replied. “He’s on his second tour of duty. They got him doing chemical cleanup. I’m sick about it.”

In the funeral procession, I drove behind her shitty Gremlin, festooned with two bumperstickers. One was a yellow ribbon. The other said “Mothers for peace.” I know that, no matter what, everyone in my family now wishes none of us were over there. Our lives aren’t worth it.

Understand I’m not flashing my working-class credentials. I don’t have them. I went to one of the nice colleges of which I speak and no matter how broke I’ve been lately, I have resources I can fall back on. It’s just that the rest of my family didn’t get those chances and the US military dangles quite a carrot, especially if there’s nothing to eat. Those of us writing stories and talking the talk have overlooked this fact. Green Day has not.


Madison Movie Talk

Once in a while, my friend Jan and I host a call-in radio program about film on a Madison, Wisc., public radio station. I dig it, and not just because I love the opportunity to sound off like a would-be expert. These lefty listeners for the most part still fight the good fight, effortlessly achieving heights of indignance that I haven’t been able to scale since I was an undergraduate. It’s good to be reminded of what I’ve become inured to — namely that plastic surgery and at least a mild eating disorder are practically casting requirements for both men and women; that women get the short end of the cinematic stick; that most people still view films as a little desert at the end of a legitimate workday rather than ye olde bread and butter. But one film that I found myself vehemently disagreeeing with the old-school progressives about was the overdetermined, overwritten, overwhelmingly underwhelming Crash, which I still contend is a pat ensemble film about LA racial dynamics that could have been written for Lifetime TV in 1991.

When Jan and I trashed it on the show, the lines lit up with a score of indignant callers chomping at the bit to set us straight. One guy said: “You just don’t understand race relations in America.” A comment that raised not only my hackles but a set of genuinely unfacetious questions: Does he? Do you? Just who does understand race relations in America right now? (Besides Cornel West, anyway?) And does the film really understand race, or even purport to?

Although I find Haggis’ movie so clichéd as to be possibly harmful, does the fact that these folks found it useful mean, as Jan tactfully suggested while I jumped all over the poor caller, that it can’t be quite so easily dismissed? It’s my final question here, I guess. None of these callers could specify what they found so helpful or useful about Crash. Rather, they just averred it was a “worthy topic.” And just because a film takes on an admittedly worthy topic, does it thus become a worthy film?

You know my answer is no. Otherwise, I’d be singing poor John Sayles’ recent movies’ praises.

On another note, callers liked that damned penguins movie, too. And more than one listener confessed s/he wouldn’t be seeing Murderball because of its title. Too bad, because that really is a worthy film — albeit one with an admittedly futile title. I’ll say this for the Maddy listeners: They do value their foreign film. Let’s hear it for the Midwestern independent theaters, no matter how poorly air-conditioned they apparently are.


Anne Heche Is a Convincing Alien (or: What I Learned My Summer Vacation)

I apologize for my inexcusably long break. All I can say is that I am one of those irresponsible New Yorkers who not only has a car, but loves her car. It’s a pain in the ass to park, to pay for, and to protect, but — aaaaah. Come summer and its clammy, dirty hot-towel slap, ain’t nothing better than climbing into my Hyundai Sadie’s four walls and speeding right up the BQE ramp and out, out, out of NYC environs.

I’ve been to: the Catskills; Onset Bay, Massachusetts; the tony Hamptoni; Long Beach, LI; and, of course, la Coney Island. And I am here to report that even better auto-entertainment (if you catch my meaning) than mypod is la book on tape. The cheesier the better, it seems. I tried listening to Middlemarch and Crime and Punishment and, though I admired those books much when I read them a decade ago, lordy, were they lousy in traffic. Nay, it’s been less lofty fare: domestic fiction from Alice McDermott; you-go-girl faction from Terry McMillan (NYTimes phrasing, not my own); Frank Abagnale’s swinging-con memoir Catch Me If You Can, Aretha Franklin’s autoautoautobiography (compelling on oh-so-many levels!); and, by far the best, Call Me Crazy by Anne Heche, read by the authoress herself in her patented Stonewall-era-gay-male-meets-Ethel Merman voice. I will say this for Heche: She obviously wrote it herself. She grounds out her church-ladylikeness with down-and-dirty swearing. "I'd rather be crazy than fucking God!" she exclaims after describing waking up with, oh, stigmata in her palms. And then there's the poetry she occasionally uses to jazz up her prose. Couplets rhyming “herpes-scaby” with “My sister Abby.” Or, "I was mad/a loon/a crazy cartoon." Plus the exact pronunciation of her alien-identity Celestia’s special language.


All right, I’ve broken my August-posting cherry, so more later today or tomorrow.