Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Beautiful Chicago Mind

In which I briefly take on the back-to-back best picture Oscar winners from 2001-2002:


It didn't appeal to me. Raunchy 1970s musicals are not my thing, though they have always been popular with some part of the public. Even at the time I felt this element of the popular culture of my early childhood to be mostly grotesque. This movie was made in 2002, so everything is flashier and more antiseptic than it would have been in the actual '70s, but the grating songs and attitude of the original show have carried over annoyingly enough.

It is strange, cold, loud, and jarring, and has an odd and very flat cast. None of the characters has any appeal or reality. There was a lot of emphasis in the special features on the prodigious amount of work that was put in by all of the talent involved, but so what? This is one of the more annoying trends of contemporary life, the self-congratulation and calling attention to how many grueling hours one is putting into one's craft; even if something worthwhile has been achieved, it either strikes one forcibly on the screen (as in some of the Werner Herzog movies) or in whatever its equivalent is in other fields of endeavor, or it fails to pique interest. I have spent probably four or five hours straining to write this post. I don't want it to appear that way, but if it does, it is an effect of my style or construction. I don't think it should be a point of emphasis in publicity though.

Hollywood loves this story--this is the 3rd or 4th version of it they have made, including 1942's Roxie Hart, which I noted having seen here a couple of years back. Nothing in either the premise or the execution ever seems to fire my imagination with regard to it.

All of the main female leads are within a year of my exact age, which exercises in numerology always interest me. Renee Zellweger was born 8 months before me in Texas; Catherine Zeta-Jones 3 months prior in Wales; and Queen Latifah (nee Dana Owens) was born two months after in Newark, New Jersey. None of them strike me as having much commonality of experience or worldview or culture with me, even at the most superficial levels. The Queen probably would be the closest of the three, both due to geographical and socio-economic proximity (her parents were a public school teacher and a cop, which is about the same level of society that I come from). The other two I have no read on at all. Emerson says of the artist, that she "...should pierce the soul; should command; should not sit aloof & circumambient merely, but should come & take me by the hand & lead me somewhither..." This is not what I experience when I see Renee Zellweger.

A Beautiful Mind

This I liked, naturally. Who doesn't like movies set in the Princeton and MIT math departments in the 1940s and 50s? I'd like to know, and then have something done about it. This was one of the last films I ever saw in the theater, the night before my wife went into labor with our first baby. I enjoyed it well enough at that time too. I cannot put myself on a limb and say it is Great, because what I liked about it was the nostalgia and the evocation of high-intellect environments as I like to imagine they are, and in this it felt like the movie was flattering me rather than dealing with its own more interesting or serious subject and saying to the likes of me, "Try and figure out what it is actually about; though you can't", which would have been a lot better. When I saw it in 2002 I identified more readily with the genius mathematicians and Ivy Leaguers and Nobel Prize Winners. I confidently thought this was my natural crowd, more or less. Now of course I recognize that world and experience of life as it really is, hopelessly remote.

As long as we are on the theme of women who were born in 1969-70, we should talk about Jennifer Connelly. I will get the juvenile stuff out of the way first. Back around 1988 Jennifer Connelly--at that time her name was frequently preceded by the modifier 'pneumatic' in the press--starred in a movie called Some Girls, in which a typical schmoe college student, who somehow happens to be going out with her, or thinks he is, comes to stay with (and get worked over by) her artistic, rich, beautiful and sexually sophisticated family at their chateau in Quebec over Christmas break. I watched this at about 2 in the morning at the home of a friend of mine after an evening of revelry. This friend was a man who could juggle 3 women at a time and keep their energies turned to hating their rivals and figuring out how to eliminate them rather than directing any anger towards him. You are probably wondering why, if he was so cool, he was hanging out with with me at all, let alone watching movies with me on cable TV at 2 in the morning. It's a good question. For whatever reason, this guy found me amusing. Also, he usually took care of his seductions quite early in the evening, especially if one of his reliables showed up. He would excuse himself for a minute to go and banter with the newly arrived guest, all very casual and deliberate, though it did not take long for him to absorb the attention of his target and force whatever other people were present to wander off. He would then manage to maneuver the girl into a private room under some pretense and within 20 minutes the job would be done. We would then see the girl running out of the house in tears at having yet again succumbed so easily, and a couple of minutes afterwards our friend would rejoin us by the bar in a state of feigned agitation, as if he were angry at himself (or even us) for his own weakness. But in reality, the tension was off (for him), and he was freed up to revel with his male friends for the rest of the night. But back to Jennifer Connelly, at the conclusion of Some Girls, much of which involves the actress in question running around in a black bra tormenting the supposed boyfriend, with no intention of giving up the goods, my friend the stud turned and said, "Surrender, I think I am traumatized for life". If that was his reaction, you can only imagine what mine must have been.

Jennifer Connelly was born in the Catskills and grew up partly in Brooklyn Heights and partly in Woodstock, New York. She attended arts schools. Her father was Northern European Catholic (Irish-Norwegian) and her mother was Jewish, a combination I have frequently noticed to have produced dynamic results. Her parents appear to have been affluent, though not plutocrats. She attended Yale for a couple of years--if I had gone there I would have been in her class--and then transferred to Stanford for a while, but she returned to films before getting any degrees. All of this obviously makes her progressive/educated upper middle class East Coast to her core. She is definitely representative of a type in my generation that I was always trying hard to like because, in the first place, if you have any identification with this artsy-liberal-semi-intellectual east coast crowd, there are not very many alternatives, and secondly, because these women had the kinds of attitudes and personalities that were, for lack of a better word, 'approved', by whoever it was that determined what the women our age ought to be like, and what we ought to look for in them. The problem of course was that while these women were adequate, indeed more than adequate, a quantitative improvement in outlook and ambition and educational achievement over prior generations, too many males were not, and this mismatch of qualities and excellences between boys and girls drained much of the fun out of social life in that era. Jennifer Connelly is both an extreme example of this, and a walking bundle of contradictions. Her entire bearing in interviews and so forth, especially now (at late as 1995 she was still coming off as more a flakey-artsy rather than serious-professional artsy, which transformation she underwent sometime between the above date and 2001) speaks of someone who came of age socially in an environment with a critical dearth of adequately developed men compared to herself. Yet at the same time that she makes statements such as not respecting women who use flirtatious behavior to catch the attention of  males and get something that they want, the bulk of the roles in her career have been as a girlfriend/ supportive wife or unabashed object of not particularly sophisticated lust. Though perhaps I am seeing the wrong movies...

Contemporary Bonus

Over the course of the summer, I had the opportunity to spend time with people outside my immediate family. Sometimes movies were watched. These gatherings were largely made up of people who not do not want to watch Celine and Julie Go Boating, ever, so I happened to see a couple of fairly recent films that I wanted to briefly comment on, Cedar Rapids and Crazy Stupid Love. These were both middling to occasionally amusing Hollywood product. They shared several common themes with other recent run of the mill movies I had seen, which, as I rarely watch up to date movies, indicated to me that these similarities must represent real trends. I have already labored too long on this post, so I will simply list what I think these trends are, and perhaps I will elaborate at a later time:

1. The earnest and totally naive 30-something male character from the upper midwest. Characteristics: goofy, usually a virgin, wholly unironic, has little knowledge of the world beyond the 30 mile radius around his hometown in northern Minnesota. Basically a modern-day version of Dostoevsky's Idiot, only completely infantile and holly devoid of spiritual depth. Variations appear in: Lars & the Real Girl, Cedar Rapids. Fargo. What is the cause for the proliferation of this type? Fatigue with the cynicism of modern society, though I believe having the characters be male is a cipher for film producers' real desire, which is for the possibility/return of sweetness & innocence in women. They dare not express that openly though.

2. The Business Conference set at a hotel as a place for respectable middle class adults to be free to engage in wild behavior. Variations appear in Cedar Rapids, Up in the Air. What is the cause of this? Respectable middle aged Americans are so bored and desperate to have fun while at the same time avenues in which this is even a plausible fantasy are becoming more and more restricted. The fact that the Business Conference seems to be emerging as an adult fantasy where people imagine they might be able to meet and get away with having sex with a stranger is all you need to know about the kind of desperation that is afoot in the land. See point #5 also, which is related.

3. The group of unrelated, single professional friends who have often just met coming together to rescue/ intervene on behalf of a member of the group in trouble. Variations appear in: about 5,000 movies, though I date the trend as a grand theme of modern popular cinema to Four Weddings and a Funeral. This obviously speaks to the desperation of people, especially single urban professional people, for the camaraderie that is lacking from their lives.

4. The part of the player in Crazy Stupid Love appears to have been both shamelessly cribbed in whole from the game/pick up artist bloggers such as Roissy in D.C, and intended as satire. It didn't work as satire.

5. Sexual desperation of middle class 40-somethings. Yes, this is a constant theme of world history. Still, in Crazy Stupid Love, the main character's wife announces she wants to separate from him for a while, during which time he meets the player, who teaches him how to dress and talk to women, has one night stands with 8 attractive younger women he picks up in bars, makes his kids' teenage babysitter fall in love with him and take naked pictures of herself to send to him, before finally getting back with his wife at the end. The writers of this movie obviously realized that their fantasies and internet reading pretty much constituted the entirety of their mental activity at this point, so why not combine them and make a movie out of it?

6. The other notable things about these movies is how little there is at stake in them, because everyone is so atomized. It doesn't matter if Steve Carell gets back with his wife or what happens to his children other than to himself. In films such as The Best Years of Our Lives or It's a Wonderful Life the future of the whole society is seen to hinge on people's marital choices and their ability to cope with changes in society and so on. I suspect this is one of the reasons why so many modern movies, especially those aimed at mainstream audience, seem so thin and pointless. But I really have to go, and can't elaborate on this any more...

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