Monday, December 26, 2011

A risible simile

I saw Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol yesterday with my brothers. All three of us liked it a lot. Every frame -- particularly those with Tom Cruise -- indicated that the thing cost a king's ransom to make, but those dollars were put to great use. This thing was a masterpiece of spectacle for its own sake.

It was fascinating to note how prominently the star figured in the credits, more than just for his role: After the words "A Bad Robot Production" appeared on the screen, the words "Bad Robot" faded out and were replaced with "Tom Cruise". This makes it seem almost like a king's ransom worth of a vanity project, a monument to Tom Cruise's own glory; but that doesn't diminish the movie's virtues.

Before I present the titular analogy, it's worth noting that the director, whom I credit most for turning money into beauty here, had never done a live action film before. Brad Bird was an acknowledged master of animation, having done the sublime The Iron Giant and some Pixar films like The Incredibles. How the producers came to trust him with such a mammoth project as a live-action debut is beyond me. As my brother pointed out, Bird has an illustrious precedent: apparently Michelangelo had done almost no painting prior to the Sistine Chapel, despite having made a name in sculpture.

In conclusion: Ghost Protocol is a modern-day Sistine Chapel, with the religious iconography replaced by car crashes and ludicrous nonsense.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Inventing a Tradition

An ambitious premise, and its beautiful but flawed execution

Mythology, according to Guy Maddin, is not a strong suit of his native Canada. Inspired by the patriotic mythology of the U.S. and by the long cultural memory of his Icelandic forebears -- whose language remains by his account essentially the same, even readable, after 1,000 years -- Maddin set out to create a uniquely Canadian lore; the result, "Tales from the Gimli Hospital" (1988), depicts the experience of the earliest Icelandic settlers at Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, circa 1876-8. "Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed", an augmented version of the film presented in mid-November at Performa 11, reflected Maddin's further intent to add two decades’ worth of the cultural building, or "layering" as he put it, that a myth usually acquires over a century or more.

Is the Canadian mythos really so absent? Doesn't some of Canada's folk-tinged rock music, e.g. The Band, Neil Young, Arcade Fire, perhaps fill a small part of that hole? More importantly, does "Gimli" live up to its ambition? Having been to Canada just once, I can only guess. Also, a legend is properly absorbed by long and continuous exposure, e.g. the aura of the Founding Fathers in American dialogue; if "Gimli" wants to be a statement of Canadian identity, a single overwhelming 65-minute performance isn't quite enough to read it as such. (It’s a partial testament of success along that line that I want to see it again.) "Gimli" did at least achieve the right tone for its aims, mixing spontaneous gaiety and deep tragedy with fascinating details of time and place. Within a small-scale narrative, these formed an origin story in miniature for the New Icelandic community.

The film tells the story of the smallpox epidemic of 1876-1877 and is named after the real hospital that cared for some of its victims. It focuses on a fictional patient, "Einar the Lonely", whose story is told to small children next to their mother’s sickbed; Einar and his fellow patients pass the time recalling and recounting their pasts, forming a recursive structure of memories within a memory. (In one of the funniest recollections, a patient describes his marriage: the minister, afraid of the plague, refused to cross the river, so the bride and groom shouted their vows to the opposite bank. In his opening remarks, Mr. Maddin claimed to have taken inspiration from stories his older Icelandic-Canadian relatives told, and it seems likely this was one of them.) The hospital setting is densely realized, from the leaking thatch ceiling to the sweaty bedsheets, and the flashbacks show in detail the fishing and gutting that would have been the settlement's first concern. There are also several long sequences depicting fever dreams, which are as amusing, entrancing and occasionally confusing as they should be. Throughout, Mr. Maddin uses the language of silent-era films, with actors whose faces (and makeup) tell stories themselves, and playing with light and dark, with at least two action scenes depicted entirely via shadow.

This presentation also featured a new soundtrack, performed in the front of the theater as the movie played onscreen behind the musicians. Aono Jikken Ensemble, a small group featuring strings, percussion, and a singer, provided sound effects, dialogue, and an achingly beautiful score that they composed. The performance had a few unfortunate problems. Syncing foley effects and vocals is a delicate process, and it's no mark against the performers that they didn't always nail it on stage, but every missed cue jarred noticeably against the carefully crafted atmosphere of sound and image. Besides that issue, a live performance tends to draw attention from the rest of the film, and the bright lighting on the performers didn't help matters. I missed some of "Gimli", for instance, distracted by the work of singer Kristin Anna Valtysdottir, whose expressive voice and expert use of effects pedals sold a challenging performance of narration, dialogue, and occasional background chatter. But what really stuck with me was the sustained, longing yet cold tones of the strings, which gave voice to the long-remembered suffering that the film seeks to enshrine as myth.

"Gimli" aspires to be a statement of cultural identity, a kind of "Fargo" for New Iceland. Whether it does credibly is not really for me to say. It makes a strong impression, at least, and is worth seeing for that reason. I hope the "reframed" version and its score become available soon, but for now I'm looking forward to renting the 1988 original.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


This deeply stupid routine took place at least three times over Thanksgiving; now I can't get it out of my head. I share it here, in paraphrase. Note that I am one of Brothers 2 and 3; which one I am is left to the reader as an exercise.

Brother 1: Guys, how did I manage to get four hours of rest in a two hour nap?
Brother 2: What if he took ...
Brother 3: a nap ...
Brother 2: inside of a nap?
Brothers 2 and 3: INCEPTION!!!
Brother 3: Dum dum dum dum dum dum
Brother 1: You guys are really weird.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A different sort of wish list

It's time for my family to exchange Christmas lists. I'm not sure I'm digging it this year. It feels inappropriately transactional, particularly at a time when the flaws in a transaction-driven society are staring us in the face. I find myself thinking about alternatives that respect the spirit of giving but that maybe make blind consumption a less prominent part of the season.

There is a meme I've come across in several essays/blog posts/articles: the really valuable things we do with our money and our time are experiences, rather than things. I've found this to be true for myself. A concert, a great book, or even simply a fun night of nothing more than (moderate) intoxication or walking around does wonders for my state of mind and my short-to-middle-term happiness, far more so than spending the same money on shirts. Not that material things are unimportant, but currently my wants are either too trivial to ask anybody for (more socks), or too expensive to bring into conversation (a hammered dulcimer, a new place to live).

My perspective on this may not be shared by a majority of your Christmas-present targets. In my circle alone, I know at least a few people with very specific, generally reasonable, and well-articulated material requests. If you know a new parent, they've probably got a list of needs as long as your leg. I'm sure I'll be very desirous of gifts when I finally move and require new furniture, board games, et alia. But more broadly, aren't there already enough things in our lives? You probably know somebody who doesn't need or want a new hat as much as they want meaningful tokens of human connection.

I present to you, therefore, a few concrete suggestions for a less material gift strategy, colored heavily by my personal preferences, and organized by how much they would cost.

Looking to spend:

Big-to-medium money?

Buy a ticket to something cool: an opera, a concert, a dance or stage performance, an art show. Ideally, go with them - this excuses the old fallacy of gifting as if for yourself.

Small money?

Take your gift target to a movie. Find a super-cheap show of the sorts described above. Get a paperback or a CD (smaller money: get it used on Amazon or Ebay). Or just buy your friend a coffee and talk! I don't drink coffee but I'll come to a coffee shop with you.

No money?

Recommend a book that's affected you, or a band that's gotten in your head. If they've expressed curiosity about something you know, like Brahms or British comedy, give them a well thought out, perhaps forceful, recommendation of where to start. (By forceful, I imagine a winking threat: "If you don't listen to Kind of Blue, I'll have to rethink this friendship!")

Or, if you are so inclined and able, make something. A poem or story, a drawing or a doodle, a gimmicky or referential computer program or Android app, a song that your friend can sing or play (or a decent recording of yourself or your band doing it), a short film or a thoughtful montage or photoessay. This is far from cheap no matter how you value your own time and effort, but I'm reasonably sure someone on your list will remember and cherish such a thing far better than any store-bought object.

(End suggestions.)

I probably won't stick to this strictly in all my gift-getting this year. It requires enough though that it can get exhausting, for one thing, and also a minimal understanding of what your friend wants or enjoys that I don't in all cases enjoy. Moreover, some also have compelling material requests or unstated needs. But as an experiment, I'd like to use this strategy as widely as I reasonably can, in the hope that it will be more rewarding both for me and for those recipients with whom I can pull it off.