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Category Archives: failed america

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This poor kid. All he ever did was have sex with his girlfriend just like 99% of all American teenage boys except it just HAD TO BE the daughter of the dumb moose broad thrust upon us by John McCain so he had to get trotted out onstage at the RNC with a nice haircut after being felt up by that old dude and then was ambushed by the AP in his driveway and now, NOW, post-Bristol break-up, gets accosted while in his FUCKING TRUCK by the fine upstanding journalists of Good Morning America.

Last week, after news of their break-up, I was commenting to some friends that I feel bad for Levi and Bristol when someone said, “Well, do you feel bad for all the other teenagers who get knocked up?” Yes, I do! Don’t you? The only difference is that this whole terrible private ordeal was shoved into our face by McCain and the Palins and the Republicans going “Boy howdy ain’t it grand this teenager is pregnant and keeping the baby!” and the media concocting a sideshow out of something as complicatedly personal as accidental pregnancy. There was no need for politics at this point, and yet because of who these two kids were they were thrust into the spotlight and were made to become some sort of paragons of conservative virtue (what?!) because they were keeping the baby (Jamie-Lynn Spears was just a slut though).

So I do feel bad. I feel bad that these kids had to have their own private drama, in media res all the way to its seeming finish, played out in front us, what with our horrifying bloodthirsty culture of celebrity. They never asked for any of it. So yes. I’m sad about it. It’s a sad situation that just about anyone else could be in, provided that you are both teenagers with impeccable skin at the height of your sexy powers.

Actually, you know? Fuck Bristol; she couldn’t wait to whore herself out to Greta von Susteren. So she is asking for every little bit that comes her way. Levi on the other hand has never seemed like a famewhore (I guess it’s only in the Palin genes). Staniel and I were having a conversation last week where he asked, “Levi will probably right a tell-all, right? That’s the next move?” I highly doubt it, considering these douchehole journalists keep trekking all the way to Alaska to bombard him with questions when he’s standing in his driveway or just trying to go to the gym for Chrissake.

Although Levi, really, you could just, I dunno, not talk to them, honestly.

I’ve been trying to work through my Levi Johnston issues you guys I know sorry, and other than Louche Doucheness (though I contend he seems like a nice enough boy, just watch how sad he is IN HIS TRUCK), I never really understood my weird affection until I noticed the following comment on this post:

this is a real life tim riggins.

Thus explains the appeal.

So here starts my petition for Levi Johnston to star in the next season of Friday Night Lights. Or in a gay porn. Or even better! For a life away from the spotlight as he learns how to be a father and hopefully gets to grow up.

Let’s make fun of America’s Unhappiest Cities, based on broad stereotype:

1. Portland, Oregon
Reasons to be unhappy: it’s too wet to wear birkenstocks; all the men look like Colin Meloy or Ben Gibbard (redundant)

2. St. Louis, Missouri
Reasons to be unhappy: could only afford one-half of the McDonald’s arch, which is the only thing anybody knows about St. Louis

3. New Orleans, Louisiana
Reasons to be unhappy: well, erm, uh…

4. Detroit, Michigan
Reasons to be unhappy: no one can afford to buy a car anymore; Motown was FIFTY years ago

5. Cleveland, Ohio
Reasons to be unhappy: Drew Carey

6. Jacksonville, Florida
Reasons to be unhappy: Florida

7. Las Vegas, Nevada
Reasons to be unhappy: neon; no one has money to gamble; casinos based on better cities remind Las Vegas that it sucks

8. Nashville/Davidson, Tennessee
Reasons to be unhappy: modern country music is fucking bullshit, you assholes

9. Cincinnati, Ohio
Reasons to be unhappy: doesn’t even have a Drew Carey; people actually have to go to Kentucky to get there

10. Atlanta, Georgia
Reasons to be unhappy: shitty sports teams; Jonathan Krohn

11. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Reasons to be unhappy: IT IS SO FUCKING COLD YOU GUYS

12. Sacramento, California
Reasons to be unhappy: let’s say California’s major cities are the Jacksons; Sacramento is clearly Rebbie

13. Kansas City, Missouri
Reasons to be unhappy: not even named after the state they’re in; the Royals

14. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Reasons to be unhappy: internalized homophobia

15. Memphis, Tennessee
Reasons to be unhappy: every other building in Memphis is a rundown shack, seriously

16. Indianapolis, Indiana
Reasons to be unhappy: they built the Motor Speedway and imported Peyton Manning because they needed more rednecks

17. Louisville, Kentucky
Reasons to be unhappy: you can’t really LOVE a horse, unless you wanna be like that one dude who tried and died, on camera

18. Tucson, Arizona
Reasons to be unhappy: Arizona.

19. Minneapolis, Minnesota
Reasons to be unhappy: the Replacements are overrated; St. Paul is widely thought of as the prettier one

20. Seattle, Washington
Reasons to be unhappy: truthbombed by Courtney Love (“Don’t you get embarrassed that Seattle is famous for grunge, cappucino, and heroin?”)

A while ago I got suckered into that Fuckbook 25 Things No One Cares About You nonsense because I am a solipsistic douchebag. One of the things I wrote was this:

I don’t think men should carry tote bags or “manbags” (c’mon fellas, those are just big purses). I came to this notion while in Square Books in Oxford, MS, wondering if I should buy a tote bag (after consulting with Howorth, I ended up buying a shirt). Men should carry bags where the strap hangs at a diagonal, or backpacks, or else just use their damn pockets.

I stand by this sentiment, as awfully gender essentialist/heteronormative it may be, and give you this image as proof that I am right and you are wrong, male totebaggers:

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(via)

A few years ago I became impressed that a whole slate of films–from All The Real Girls, Raising Victor Vargas, Elephant, The Station Agent, and even (gulp) Lost in Translation (which is 95% bullshit)–despite their various flaws, tried to accomplish a narrative and cinematic economy equivalent to those one normally finds in short stories. As a short story writer, one of the aspects to the form that I respect is that, in contrast to the novel, the limitations of short story writing seem to force the most talented of writers to explore the dramatic possibilities in the most minute of details. There is no space for a novel’s slow set-up of theme; any larger meaning in a short story must be conveyed with a tightness of craft and suggestion. There is no room for didactic prose and explanatory dialogue that can usually be seen in most novels. I love a film that can work like a short story, minimal and deliberate, scaled-down and full of the ordinary details that can be suffused with high drama, no matter how internalized or small the effects may be.

Slumdog Millionaire and Revolutionary Road are recent (largely disastrous) examples of a Novel as Film, and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is the best contemporary version of Short Story as Film that I have seen (fittingly, it was adapted from a story by Jon Raymond). It is, at 80 minutes, short and to the point, but languorous and easy in its style that allows great suggestion for a larger context that is implicit but unexplained in a film where the plot boils down to this: girl’s car breaks down, girl loses dog while arrested for shoplifting, girl tries to find dog while waiting for car to be fixed.

Seeing as Wendy (Michelle Williams) is on her way to Alaska, the film is a kind of spiritual sister to Into The Wild, though without the heavy-handed dramatism and nearly fairytale-ish narrative put forth in that film (though also without a performance as moving as Catherine Keener’s or Hal Holbrook’s either). If in Into The Wild the protagonist’s boundless optimism and charm moved him through his itinerant lifestyle without so much as a mention of economic concern, Wendy is constantly seen counting down her meager savings to see what she can and cannot afford. She is–instead of optimistic and charming–pragmatic and isolated, constantly concerned with the material troubles of getting from A to B, and without any lasting connection to anything except her dog Lucy. Without exposition, without the big Dramatic Gestures and teary monologues, Williams manages to powerfully portray Wendy’s complexly rich interior: a seemingly solitary past, a currently downtrodden present, yet still full of too much personal dignity to let it get in the way of a hopeful future. It’s a tremendous performance by an actress who has steadily, without much fanfare, been acquiring such performances for quite a few years now.

What makes Reichardt succeed is a filmmaker is her insistence on telling the story visually, at her own pace, and allowing the audience to infuse their own meaning onto the mise-en-scene. The film opens with a long tracking shot of Wendy and Lucy, and our view is then immediately obscured by trees when Wendy loses Lucy for the first time. Sam Levy’s cinematography is lovely in the next scene, where Lucy is found amongst a group of drifters (including an appropriately terrifying-looking Will Oldham) around a fire, an ages-old signal of community, while a hesitant Wendy watches from the bushes. Even as she eventually retrieves Lucy, conversing with the other humans, she is not part of the group, evinced by Reichardt’s cuts from the people surrounding the fire to a solitary Wendy, bashful and distant. This distance from the rest of humanity is a visual motif throughout; Wendy is hardly ever seen in frame with another person–whether it be getting caught for shoplifting by a righteous grocery store employee (a lively John Robinson, who you may remember as the floppy blond teen angel from Elephant or, perhaps if you are a different sort of person, Shia LeBeouf’s odd friend in Transformers) or getting an estimate from a mechanic (Will Patton)–and when she is, it is often shown in medium-to-long shot, such as when an employee at the pound lets Wendy inside to see if Lucy has been found. Framewise, the closest anyone gets to Wendy is when a security guard (Wally Dalton) hands her his cellphone to call the pound. Even then, it’s only after a few scenes where they are separated physically (he is introduced waking her up in the car, peering through the window, saying that she can’t sleep in the parking lot) as well as visually (a later scene has them talking to each other across the vast parking lot, Reichardt cutting between them both). Otherwise, any other human contact is separated either by a desk or the dehumanizing paraphernalia of detention facilities. The closest relationship Wendy has is to her dog, and even then–by the end–their reunion is separated by a fence.

Reichardt neither imposes herself on the story at hand nor does she allow the story to tell itself. What makes the film successful is in how she deliberately concocts shots that properly, ably, quietly gives the narrative its power. What Wendy and Lucy is about, variously, is: the prospects that you are certain await you in a mythical Somewhere Else; the relationship between human and animal; and the entirely American concept of individualism triumphing all, and the hampering of that individualism by everything one needs to Get There–namely material concern and, conflictingly, the solidarity of others. But the greatness of Wendy and Lucy is that, unlike all the other movies of 2008 that I’ve seen, it doesn’t try to Tell it to you. It allows you to absorb its quietness, its grace, its details, and leads you to a conclusion that doesn’t strive to say anything at all, but ends up–through the craft of its storytelling–saying something. But whatever that something is is up to you.

Watching The Wrestler recently, I suddenly decided that Darren Aronofsky is committed to making the ugliest-looking films possible. I didn’t see The Fountain, but all of his features are aesthetically unattractive. Part of this is how dedicated he is in the details of subculture, whether it be mathematical Jew gangsters (or something? I haven’t seen that movie since it came out and even then I was bewildered by what was happening), awful people on drugs, or beat-up beat-down run-down over-the-hill wrestlers. Some of the wrestling scenes–most especially a time-warping one in the film’s midsection–are gruesome to look at, full of blood and metal and pierced skin.

The movie does not exist without Mickey Rourke’s performance as The Ram, and what a lovely, lived-in piece of work it is. It is impossible to look at Rourke’s battered features and the comeback narrative and not conflate performer with character; this kind of confluence of star and vehicle is exceedingly rare, and oddly the best examples I can give are all women: Bette Davis in All About Eve, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. It hardly seems performative, and there are no actorly flourishes, making his character feel remarkably alive and present, almost as if it’s a documentary rather than a narrative film (the sometimes irritating camerawork reinforces this suggestion, as do the backstage scenes filled with actual pro wrestlers, all of whom are actually quite charming and surprisingly goofily pleasant). The superlative honesty of Rourke’s performance also bleeds into that of Marisa Tomei’s. The worst thing that happened to Marisa Tomei’s career was her early Oscar win; it has underrated her ever since and she only ever seems to pop up every few years (increasingly naked, I might add) to give a performance that reminds people that she is, in fact, a gifted actress. The other main performance is by Evan Rachel Wood, who for some time now I have thought to be full of potential. She isn’t required to do much in the film besides slap on a Jersey accent (pretty good) and be Emotionally Scarred, but even then she felt indelible, showing the voids that she and The Ram create in one another.

For all of the downer possibilities, the movie also has its funny moments, almost all of them intentional (the only unintentional one is the Vampire Weekend poster in Evan Rachel Wood’s house, because that’s what the young people are into!). It’s the greatness of Rourke’s performance that he is as nimble in the dramatic moments as he is in these lighter ones, whether it be the complete joy he has in charming the customers at a deli or calling Kurt Cobain a pussy who ruined music (in fact, this scene–where Rourke and Tomei are rocking out to Ratt in an empty bar–was my favorite moment of the whole movie). In spite of a rote construction full of stock characters, The Wrestler succeeds with its lingering tone of small, graceful ease.

*

Far from easy is Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, a trip back to the suffocating suburbia of American Beauty. Though where his debut film was ugly, ironically cartoonish pop, Revolutionary Road is polite parlor music that that threatens to lull you to somnolence before you realize the house is burning down.

Richard Yates’ novel must have been a powerful indictment when it was published in 1961; reading it in 2009 makes it feel silly, trite, and didactic. The thematic and narrative thrust is compelling, and there’s this constant ominous current of doom and sadness that enables you to forgive the grandstanding monologues of the characters (and they are monologues rather than dialogue; these people aren’t talking to each other so much as serving as mouthpieces for Yates’ thesis in a construct of conversation).

It feels unfair to fault the film for adhering too closely to the book, especially when it excises seemingly important details later on, but the first hour of the film is a staggering bore and chore to get through. The audience is almost immediately thrust into a wildly dramatic argument between April and Frank Wheeler (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio), full of actorly gestures and staid blocking and camerawork (though the movie is remarkably handsome throughout). Afterwards there are flashbacks that never fully explicate their love for each other, nor their seeming specialness. What I found interesting in the novel was a tacit understanding that while you were supposed to be critical of the conformity of the suburbs, you were also right in being critical of the Wheelers as above-it-all elitists entitled to their snobbery based on nothing approaching fact. There really is no reason for the Wheelers’ feeling of superiority aside from their constant proclamations of it, and the warding off of the crushing realization that comes when you realize you’re “just like everyone else.” One of the bigger tonal mistakes the film makes is that we’re supposed to sympathize with the Wheelers through and through, never critical of them and their attitude or behavior.

The film is brought to life through the introduction of John (Michael Shannon), on leave from a psychiatric institution. The purpose of John’s character is to break the politeness of societal norms with a scathing honesty, because Only The Truly Sane Would Be Called “Insane” In This Suffocating Society. If this movie were set in the South, he would be the Magical Negro. Because it’s in the Northeast, he is Crazy White Person Who Speaks The Truth. In spite of the ludicrousness of his character’s construction, Shannon provides a live-wire energy that disrupts the primness of the film up to this point–and this includes the direction and the acting.

The movie is only as good as Kate Winslet’s performance, which may be why the film picks up in the second half. Winslet is an actress I love (her performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, to me, our generation’s Annie Hall), but lately she has been sloppy in her Actorly Perfection, as if she is Becoming Meryl Streep and buying into her own hype. The flaws of her performance in Little Children are continued throughout Revolutionary Road, which also seems to have bought into its own hype: there’s an unending seriousness that is almost parodic, and Winslet’s irritating performance often seems less real than hyperreal, less how people were in the fifties than how people in the fifties were in movies. Yet Far From Heaven and Julianne Moore they are not; there is no awareness of the artifice. If in Far From Heaven they take the irony of rigidly performing the artifice in straight-face to ultimately induce honest pathos, Revolutionary Road and Winslet play pathos with so rigid a straight-face it ironically becomes dishonest artifice.

The film is far better at being Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than it is at being Far From Heaven, which is why it picks up in the second half, as does Winslet. When April begins an evisceration of Frank’s manhood filled with a mixture of disinterest, disgust, hate and fear, you see traces of the old Winslet, and the film begins to soar on her shoulders. Unfortunately, even this blow-up is so properly, primly shot that any of the tangible energy you feel from Winslet and DiCaprio is presented with no real sense of passion. I have not seen Jarhead, but American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road have proven Sam Mendes to be a thoroughly pedestrian, mediocre filmmaker.

DiCaprio gives a far more successful performance than Winslet, in that he generally seems to be playing a real person. Throughout the film, he is reactive and alert, and subtly suggests that he is on to his own bullshit. He infuses his monologues with both anger and doubt, as if realizing his entitlement of intellect and good looks has still made him mediocre, and is desperate to deny the epiphany. DiCaprio ably portrays Frank’s increasing sense of shallowness in so small a way that when he is attacked by Winslet in their Woolfian final fight (as well as by Shannon in John’s last appearance), you see a man not full of righteous fury but instead a frightened boy backed into a corner. His line-reading of “Why do you live in my house if you hate me so much?”–red-faced, shaking, crying while trying not to–is one of the few truly moving, jolting moments I’ve seen in the Oscar-bait films of 2008. DiCaprio has become quite the actor, and I think the weathered lines and slight paunch on his iconic face has only increased his watchability.

Revolutionary Road is a deeply flawed film, full of too much talk and not enough suggestion (while adhering strictly to the novel in terms of dialogue, it throws away many of its silent moments that would have made for tremendously moving visuals), and stilted performances by Winslet and Kathy Bates that clash with the refined burning of DiCaprio and spark of Shannon–as well as the shruggingly natural performance of David Harbour as Shep, my actual favorite character in both the novel and film (though he is underwritten by novice screenwriter Justin Haythe) as an oafish man who yearns for more but realizes he deserves none of his dreams. That, in fact, would have been a far more interesting film to me, but even with the missed opportunities and missteps, the now-tritely didactic sociology, Revolutionary Road manages to finally compel and move you with the force of its story.

Also it’s still better than Dumbdog Swillionaire.

No spoilers, but there are only two episodes remaining in the third–and likely final–season of Friday Night Lights (which will be re-aired on NBC starting in January), and as the season has progressed I feel safe in saying that something magical has happened: it has become less sui generis than it was in season 1, less far-fetched than season 2, and rather has resembled a sort of ethnography of life in small town America, 2008.

There is no show better equipped to portray some of the rampant social crises in contemporary America better than FNL, because its emotional and situational verisimilitude has always been its strongest calling card–part of the reason why season 2 failed was the introduction of salacious storylines that rang dissonantly against the delicate timbres scored elsewhere in the episodes (though I will say that even a lot of the melodrama, especially Landry’s dad turning into Lady Macbeth, was remarkably well-done and entertaining, if entirely ludicrous). FNL has managed to take the problems regarding economy, affordable higher education (not to mention the failing public school system), the job search, real estate, and the politics of change and effectively portray the effects they have in the lives of Americans, the strain our contemporary society has on individuals, how they influence the dynamics within families. There is no other show on television engaging with societal problems–not Mad Men, not Dexter, not Pushing Daisies, not fucking Boston Legal. The only other show that ever attempted to honestly critique and dramatize our actual world was The Wire, and even on that show it was only the final two seasons that felt actually concerned with contemporaneity (the first three seasons, to me, felt couched in early-90sisms). And FNL does it without the polemics and sporadic didacticism of The Wire. FNL has always been, first and foremost, about the arcs of its characters versus The Wire‘s arc of narrative.

This season of FNL has also approached Wire-levels regarding the push-pull dynamics of its storylines–one person’s actions sets off a chain of events whose negative effects will soon be irrevocable (think back to season 4 of The Wire, and how Herc’s various bumbling enabled the decline of Randy’s situations at home and in the street); one character will experience a great gift of fortune while another character will pay in kind by losing their previous privileges; characters will step into paths that other characters have already worn, as if there aren’t any options in treading a new road (and in small towns, there almost never are). All the various narrative strands in season 3 of FNL are woven together tightly but seamlessly–much like The Wire, but FNL seems much looser (you can breathe in their threads) because of the lack of overt politicking and the focus of its characters, as well as its homier mise-en-scène. Although far less brilliant (the writing can go through creaky spots, some of the acting not up to par), FNL has taken up the mantle of Most Important Show (if not Greatest Show Ever) from The Wire because of these elements, and I dare say it’s far warmer and more human than The Wire ever was.

On Wednesday I was TICKLED TO DEATH when I realized how many friends I have in New York are going to be meeting up out-of-town in the next week or so. Kate and George are meeting up in Cincinnati or whatever city that’s in Ohio; Stearns and the roommate are going to bro out in Vegas; and Stan, Beth and I are meeting up in California. Basically this is why New Yorkers are douchebags: they leave the city to hang out with other New Yorkers.

We have vague plans of hanging out in LA, driving down PCH, going down to San Diego maybe (if so, I may pick up a friend’s acoustic guitar so I can terrorize everyone with MY COUNTRY SONGS), and the thing that Beth and I spazzed out about all day yesterday: the Salton Sea. Beth and I maybe think Stan might not be so happy that we have planned the entire itinerary, but whatever we’ll just nag him to death and he’ll concede, right?

The towns near the Salton Sea are full of crazy insane people, which would make sense if you think that the entire area smells like dead fish. The area was thought to be an up-and-coming Palm Springs, and so it is now full of the detritus of failed American capitalism. Empty abandoned motels and outdoor spaces and rusty cars in the water. There’s a documentary I’m dying to see–narrated by John Waters–called Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea. Here is the trailer:

Basically, the people there remind me of the citizens of North Haverbrook.

A collection of my favorite images of the Salton Sea and its surrounding towns:

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A rusted car in the New River, near where it enters the sea.

GOD I AM SO HUNGRY AREN’T YOU?!

Mud volcanoes!

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Salvation Mountain (that is not a drawing), located in Slab City, built by this guy, who was featured in Into The Wild as himself, spouting Jesus love messages to Emile Hirsch and a bewildered-looking Kristen Stewart. The best thing about that scene is that it was not written and he was not acting. That is actually what he’s like. I cannot wait to meet him.

There are some absolutely fantastic pictures captured here as well.

I was talking to someone about the Salton Sea and how excited I am to see it, and I was met with a look of vaguely repulsed shock. The intimation being “Why would you want to go there?” The reason, to me, is simple when you look at those pictures. This is part of our weird America, Lynchian images made real–a breathing microcosm of lives marginalized and pushed out of society, of the failed promises of American prosperity. I want to go to there.

The Salton Sea is only 30 miles east of San Diego. I love California.