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Auteur Theory

Why do we ask artists to pick favorites from among their own work? It’s an emotional question for the artists themselves, above all, and thus expectedly irrelevant to objective merit.  So it’s curious that a certain amount of fuss has been made over Woody Allen’s recently disclosed list of his top six favorite Woody Allen films, mainly because it lacks his signature piece, “Annie Hall.”  But isn’t it natural for Allen not to love “Annie Hall” most, given that “Annie Hall” probably needs his love the least? It’s on the list with or without him even placing it there.  Not to mention that Allen comes across as self-aware enough in the rest of the interview to have calculated that the only way a list of top Woody Allen films, even one by Woody Allen, could be controversial and newsworthy would be if “Annie Hall” was conspicuously missing from it.

I find myself hating on Woody Allen films more often than not, which really isn’t fair.  When I worked on a screenplay several months ago, it was “Annie Hall” that influenced me most. (How very original of me.)  But I’ve been meaning to make amends, so in light of his presently faint level of newsworthiness, now seems as good a time as any.  Let me present:

My Top 2 Favorite Woody Allen Films

(It’s not that I can’t think of six.  But as almost everything has already been said about almost every one of his films, I can only think of two that I still feel inspired to write about.  And no doubt including “Annie Hall” here is now passé.)

1.  Manhattan (1979)

Allen’s prior repulsive and felonious sexual history was outshone into obscurity after Soon-Yi, but I’d like to point out that in “Manhattan,” his 41-year old character’s relationship with the 17-year old Tracy (played by Mariel Hemingway) was apparently based on his own real-life relationship with Stacy Nelkin, whom the (early-40s) Allen dated when she attended New York’s Stuyvesant High School.

This isn’t the sort of detail that endears me to Allen or this film.  Strangest thing, then, that “Manhattan” actually makes my list because I found it empowering to women.  (And by “women,” I mean “myself.”)  I saw “Manhattan” when I was very young and cynical (youth and optimism are actually inversely-related for me), and Diane Keaton’s character Mary Wilkie was the first heroine I’d seen portrayed as charming and adorable for being, well, brainy.  Not brainy in a nuclear-physicist Bond heroine sort of way, or in a naive but with idiot savant brilliance sort of way, but in a way best defined by adjectives that are often covertly prefixed with an “overly-”: cerebral, opinionated, talkative,  perhaps even pretentious.  If anything, I’d seen those qualities associated with a certain type of intimidating sex appeal, but never before with sweetness or likability.

Sadly, Mary Wilkie’s nuanced, authentic character, and the personal importance it once held for me, only made me more enraged with Allen when I saw “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” which is stocked with female characters so comical and asinine that I wondered if Allen had actually started hating women. But maybe he hasn’t lost his touch.  Maybe I’ve lost mine.  While watching “Vicky Christina Barcelona” for the first time, I remember asking a male friend of mine incredulously, “Do women actually come across like that??(more…)


Fever Pitch

Disappointment at an evening football game in Buenos Aires

South Africa has some phenomenal PR,” I thought, walking out of a lecture given by South African Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Yvonne Mokgoro a few years ago on the comparative civil rights protections granted under the South African and American constitutions.  According to Mokgoro, the United States came in a far distant second.  She wasn’t wrong; the South African constitution is among the most liberally worded and progressive of its kind.  But consider the current state of South Africa:  Crime and HIV prevalence are astronomically high.  Unemployment is around 40%.  Income disparity has continued to increase post-apartheid.  The President Jacob Zuma – well, the less said about him the better.  All the “Rainbow Nation” rhetoric on racism apparently remains just that.  So for a country so steeped in problems, I had to admire South Africa’s moxie in positioning itself as a beacon of hope, not only for its continent, but for the rest of the world.

More recently, I was again struck by South Africa’s public relations when I was tied down and forced to watch the film “Invictus” (2009) against my will.  Based on a book by Independent reporter John Carlin, “Invictus” tells the story of the South African rugby team, the Springboks, and their victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  Despite the widespread call post-apartheid to put an end to the historically racially divisive team, Mandela avidly supported the Springboks, anticipating that their victory would bring the country together.

Not only was “Invictus” mind-numbingly dull, it suffered from the fatal flaw of most movies of its genre:  it lacked both a prequel and a sequel.  A prequel would have shown the uglier facts about why Black South Africans so detested the Springboks.  A sequel, in turn, would have shown how shortly after the World Cup the Springboks returned to their old ways, and the numerous racial allegations and incidents that had the country once again calling to disband the team.  As Louis Proyect writes about such films: “in each case, the audience is hoodwinked into believing that the movie is about the real world rather than some liberal fantasy.”

Such criticisms against films like “Invictus” are nothing new; their very premise – that racial discord can be best ameliorated not through structural change but via a sporting victory – itself cannot be said with a straight face.

Or so I thought.

As it turns out, “Invictus” did nail one thing with spot-on accuracy: the real-world discourse that sports are an effective means of mitigating racial tensions.  In the lead-up to the current FIFA World Cup, all sorts of people in high places were throwing such claims around:

“Let’s kick discrimination off the field. Let’s tackle exclusion. Let’s put racism offside,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated in an op-ed published in South Africa’s Business Day.

While economic rise can certainly help cure any number of social issues, from what I gather, this optimism is not just about the cash.  Hosting the World Cup will lead to an increase in tourism revenue, but South Africa already is a leader in that regard, ranking second among African countries after Egypt in world tourism rankings.  So it’s been predicted that any South Africa (as opposed to FIFA) cash gains from the World Cup are unlikely to be offset by the tremendous cost of hosting the event.  Writes Chris Bolsmann at the Harvard Business Review: (more…)

Youth Without Youth

Inside Buenos Aires Design

The effect of technological revolution on youth culture, as viewed by Jean-Luc Godard, David Foster Wallace and, um, myself. [Abridged]

Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Breathless,” (1960) recently re-released in black and white 35mm print for its 50th anniversary (and currently playing at Film Forum in Soho), has a reputation comparable to “Citizen Kane” or “Birth of a Nation” – the sort of film secure of its placement in the Film Class 101 canon, with its modern relevance devised entirely from its once groundbreaking film techniques and its revolutionizing of the known narrative concept at the time.  All very true, but all a bit staid for a film that 50 years later still comes across as freewheeling and anarchic.  Far more intriguing are the questions Godard poses regarding how youth fashions its identity under the influence of popular culture, questions that continue to be asked afresh with each new generation and each new technological revolution.

The technological revolution at play in “Breathless,” the story of the young and narcissistic Michel and Patricia in late 1950s Paris, is the ubiquity of film, particularly Hollywood gangster films, in European and American pop culture at the time.  Godard explores how not only the style and morality of these films, but also the very nature of film as a medium itself, can mold the personalities of those most susceptible to its influence: style-conscious urban youth.

So what qualities did the medium of film wrought in 1960s youth culture?  For Michel, like the gangster heroes he emulates, “cool” is about bravado. Characters embodied by Bogart and Cagney acted seemingly without forethought, moving the plot along to fit into a brief running time.  Michel, unable to distinguish that his life is inconveniently unscripted, likewise remains unperturbed by the fact that he has no idea what he is doing, and his downward-spiraling, frenetic actions are why the French title of the film, “À bout de souffle,” is better translated as “Out of Breath,” rather than “Breathless.”

Equally obsessed with image is the beautiful Patricia, with her portentous movie-dialogue conversation and the vanity with which she poses by a painting and asks Michel if she resembles the woman it features. Film, after all, is the projection of images, and in focusing on outward appearance, Michel and Patricia not only fear introspection (lest they reveal themselves to be anything “less” than glamorous, two-dimensional characters), but also have a pathological need for an audience, in each other and, as Godard does not hesitate to show, in us.  As Dennis Grunes describes one scene:

Patricia turns to us, showing the same need for us as Michel has shown.  Why us?  Because we, the audience, her reality, project her fantasy, her motive, of assuaging loneliness; and the self-reflexivity of the film corresponds, in part, to this sore self-consciousness afflicting Patricia and Michel.

Just as “Breathless” examined the powerful influence of popular film on youth culture in the 1960s, these questions re-arose with the next technological revolution: the ubiquity of popular television in the 1980s and 90s.

By the early 1990s, television – and television advertising – dominated American media.  Young Americans were watching on average six hours of television per day, a hitherto unprecedented amount of time to be spent doing anything, and the absurd magnitude of this influence shaped the generation. In his 1990 essay “E. Unibus Pluriam,” David Foster Wallace described the defining features of his youth culture as “irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule.” And just as Godard linked his own generation’s narcissistic self-consciousness and bravado with the medium of film, so too did DFW root the defining features of 1990s youth culture in the medium of television:

In fact, the numb blank bored demeanor…that has become my generation’s version of cool is all about TV. “Television,” after all, literally means “seeing far”; and our six hours daily not only helps us feel up-close and personal at like the Pan-Am Games or Operation Desert Shield, but also, inversely, trains us to relate to real live personal up-close stuff the same way we relate to the distant and exotic, as if separated from us by physics and glass, extant only as performance, awaiting our cool review…[W]ooed several gorgeous hours a day for nothing but our attention, we regard that attention as our chief commodity, our social capital, and we are loath to fritter it.

At the 50th anniversary of “Breathless” (and 20th anniversary of “E. Unibus Pluriam”), the time seems right to ask these questions again.  What effect has our generation’s technological revolution, the ubiquity of the internet and social networking, wrought on American youth culture today?  What are the defining features of the personality this medium has caused us to invent for ourselves? (more…)

Après moi, le deluge.

Stencil graffiti in Cordoba, Argentina

Every now and then a film comes along that is so vile, so repugnant to the fabric of human character and to the soul itself, that its cultural effect is magnificent to behold.  It  is a rare moment where legions of film critics, normally divided by taste and persuasion, are united by a most powerfully polarizing force.  They walk out of the theater as though exiting a chamber of horrors, and when they finally sit down to write, to resolve into words an intensity of emotion that is almost pre-lingual, their reviews nearly resemble love letters.

I live for this shit.  I’m openly revealing myself as a petty and mean-spirited hater, but while others were counting down to the theatrical release of “Sex and the City 2,” I was counting down to the release of the reviews. I couldn’t concentrate. I could barely sit still.  I sat at my laptop refreshing Rotten Tomatoes over and over, rubbing my hands together and cackling with unsuppressed glee like one of the three witches in “Macbeth.”

Look – I didn’t want this movie to fail. Okay, yes I did. I started to hate the show, with a fanatacism that much more strident to mask my shame in once having liked it.  I hated the main character Carrie (and I’m stealing this description) for being the embodiment of a particular type (caricature?) of woman I generally do not appreciate: “a drama queen attention vampire who fancies herself a low-maintenance flower child.” I hated its pernicious, misogynistic and patently false spawn-philosophies like “he’s just not that into you.” But now, all of its various transgressions against me are forgiven, and I am prouder of it than I can say.

In life, one must recognize in certain moments a call to action, but in other moments, to just stand in awe of the achievements of one’s superiors.  This moment is one of the latter.  Instead of watching and reviewing SATC2 myself, I emphatically recommend reading the reviews already written (all 150 of them).  Your time could not be better spent.  But for those of you whose priorities are not so admirably aligned as mine, let me present the highlights:

..reaches its nadir in a hideous scene wherein it’s revealed that the oppressed women of the Middle East are really hoping for a catwalk on which to strut their Paris fashions. Fuck you.

The tagline states that we should “Carrie on.” The publicity department almost got it right, but the spelling’s off. It needs to be “Carrion” because nothing says putrefying, rotten and vile quite like this sequel.


At one point the antagonists gather for a tortured karaoke performance of “I am Woman,” which threw me into shock and very nearly caused me to soil myself.


Una vez más?

Street Mural in Valparaiso, Chile

I’ve never thought of myself as appearing ethnically ambiguous until I saw how confidently South Americans assumed I spoke Spanish.  Frankly, South Americans were more confident addressing me in Spanish than North Americans are addressing me in English.  It was like I’d returned to my motherland.  If a Caucasian friend of mine asked a question in Spanish (fluently), nine times out of ten the response would end up directed at me, and I’d act obnoxiously smug about it.

You might think this helped me master the Spanish language.  But apart from quickly forgetting most of my English (which I’m told is the first, vital step), I never really progressed.  It was easier to just lie about how long I’d been living on the continent.

Linguistics has to be one of the most universally intriguing fields, and reading up on its rudiments lately prompted me to critically examine (read: shamelessly justify) this mental block.  Don’t get me wrong – I wish I had learned Spanish, and I doubtlessly missed out on more cultural richness than I can possibly grasp.  But considering that I mostly travelled by myself, on the lowest of budgets, in places where people rarely spoke a word of English, how could my ignorance of the language be so persistent? What the hell did I do?

Wittgenstein examined the uses of language through a construct termed “language games,” which show how people are trained to react in certain ways to the words of others.  For example, in a simple language game, a leader on a building site says the word “beam” and the worker knows to go and get the beam.  The word “beam” does not just label the object; it makes something happen.

This seems obvious but it makes a fine point – it shifts the focus of “language” from labeling and vocabulary to communication and utility.  Likewise, in the acquisition of language by infants, as informally described by David Carkeet, they must first learn to communicate without vocabulary before learning to communicate with it.

Vocabulary, it turns out, plays an entirely inferior role.  Truffaut’s film “The Wild Child” closely follows the true story of the French Dr. Itard’s frustrating attempt to socialize a young boy, Victor, who has grown up in solitude in a forest, unable to speak or understand any language.  Nothing makes Victor happier than drinking milk, and at one point in the film Dr. Itard refuses to pour him some till he asks for it by name, eventually bellowing, “Lait!! LAIT!!!” at the cowering child.  But Victor remains silent.  Defeated, the doctor hands him a glass of milk.  In the tense quiet afterwards, Victor drinks from the glass and feebly utters “Lait.” (more…)

Is this ART? (Meeting Mr. Brainwash)

Meeting Mr. Brainwash, a.k.a. MBW, a.k.a. Thierry Guetta, is not at all hard to do.  His ICONS exhibit is currently on display at 415 W. 13th St. in New York City through the month of May, and from what I gather, Mr. Brainwash makes frequent appearances.  He even briefly stopped by as I checked out the exhibit yesterday afternoon.

coverMr. Brainwash looked a bit fitter, a bit less like a hipster Rob Schneider and a bit more like an artist-about-town than he did in “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Attired in sunglasses and a trendy-sort-of hat, he nonchalantly smoked a cigarette on the steps before joining a group of young women slumped on couches in the center of the exhibit to tickle one of their adorable small dogs, while a tall young assistant followed him around pleading, “Thierry…” If MBW is a hoax, he’s certainly an elaborate one.

coverThe exhibit widely favored full-wall graphic displays over art pieces, such as the large wall comprised of Alfred Hitchcock panels (which have also apparently been seen in Los Angeles) seasoned with fresh advice from Mr. Brainwash, as well as a major wall in the center, presumably the hub of the ICONS exhibit, comprised of smaller, familiar-looking pop art pieces, over which was ironically printed the message, “If everyone thought the same/nothing would ever change.”

coverMr. Brainwash is full of such cheerful advice about life and art, all of it very innocuous.  Sometimes he even seems willing to forego presentation in favor of providing it wherever he can.


If you thought it only natural that Mr. Brainwash would embrace the practice of using unusual materials to reconstruct several of his otherwise derivative pieces, you thought wrong. Apart from a few occasional touches, e.g., the image of the band “KISS” constructed out of broken record pieces, the manipulation of mediums was noticeably unimaginative. Meaning that there was nothing more innovative than what you’d find at a high school art fair.

But let’s be kind to Mr. Brainwash. I’m feeling particularly generous towards him right now; his exhibit does, after all, give away mountains of posters and postcards to anyone who wants them, and he did seem quite fond of that girl’s adorable puppy.  Perhaps some art consumers really do prefer his versions of famous pop art pieces, even if his versions don’t quite take their source material in much of a creatively different direction.  Adding the lyrics of “Papa Don’t Preach” to a Warholesque Madonna might not be revolutionary, artistically-speaking, but perhaps a would-be-acquirer of Warholesque Madonnas might find the lyrics an improvement. Maybe it just looks better. Or cooler. Whatever. (more…)

Vanity Fair

Street mural in Valparaiso, Chile

“American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” is opening at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum this week, showcasing the development of women’s fashion from the 1890s to the 1940s, and its influence on modern fashion.

According to The New Yorker, the show’s curator, Andrew Bolton, frames the exhibit as “a face-off between Old World and New World ideals of femininity.”

[Bolton] cites the Paris couturier Jean Patou, who decided, in the nineteen-twenties, “the slender American Diana” was superior to “the rounded French Venus,” at least as a clotheshorse. In Bolton’s opinion, not only Diana’s silhouette but also her attitudes would “triumph” over those of Venus to set the standards of style… “Fashion intersected with feminism to become a liberating force for women in America,” he writes in the show’s wall notes.

Bolton’s lofty comments on the intersection between fashion and feminism immediately brought to mind a hilarious article I once read in The Onion, “Women Now Empowered by Everything A Woman Does.” Just to give some highlights:

Clothes-shopping, once considered a mundane act with few sociopolitical implications, is now a bold feminist statement…

Not every woman can become a physicist or lobby to stop a foundry from dumping dangerous metals… Although these actions are incredible, they marginalize the majority of women who are unable to, or just don’t particularly care to, achieve such things… Fortunately for the less impressive among us, a new strain of feminism has emerged in which mundane activities are championed as proud, bold assertions of independence from oppressive patriarchal hegemony.

The article is a satire but, despite being a bit mean-spirited and misogynistic, I think it accurately reflects a lot of the confusion surrounding feminism, particularly when the article came out in 2003, the heyday of the show “Sex and the City.” Debates about the influence of “Sex and the City” on modern feminism were continuously hashed and rehashed during the time, and I can’t tell if a consensus was ever reached. What is clear, however, is that while “Sex and the City” spawn continue to crop up – e.g., the subsequent films, similarly-themed books, newer shows like“Gossip Girl” and “The Hills,” etc. – no one in their right mind would call any one of them even remotely feminist.  If anything, the sustained interest in glamorizing the lives and wardrobes of wealthy young women, even when completely drained of all remnants of feminist thought, is an indication that what people found compelling about “Sex and the City” probably had nothing whatsoever to do with feminism in the first place.

I have managed not to get too depressed about all this. But now that we’ve come to a tenuous peace with the fact that American women are more interested in fashion than feminism, it struck me (and The New Yorker) as entirely odd that the curator of the Costume Institute would so confidently intersect the two of them, describing fashion as a “liberating force” for American women.

It seems clear that to look at the intersection between fashion and feminism in the most generous light would be to say that there isn’t one.  For example, when I studied Sex Equality in law school with the legendary feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon, one of the first things the female students (including myself) whispered about was how very beautiful and put together she always was. (more…)

Notes from the “Overrated in Pop Culture” Files

coverNight on a film set in Buenos Aires

When I ask people who their favorite actor is, the most common response I get is: Brad Pitt.

When I ask people who their favorite actress is, the most common response I get is: Kate Winslet.

And why not?  For one, both just seem like really cool people. Brad Pitt, purely by virtue of his likable nature, managed to emerge from the tabloid-seasoned celebrity affair of the decade as The Man – the Coolest Guy in School, albeit on a global level.  No one, not even his jilted ex-wife Jennifer Aniston, has a word to say against him. It was no wonder that Quentin Tarantino, the consummate Sorta Cool Nerd in the High School of Hollywood, apparently begged Pitt to star in “Inglourious Basterds.”  (Frankly, I sometimes get the feeling that Tarantino’s entire career as a director is in part just his elaborate way of social climbing.  Elaborate, yet successful. Good on you, QT.)

Kate Winslet, in turn, is widely regarded as the greatest actress of her generation.  She has been nominated for six (SIX!) Academy Awards, four of them by the age of 29, which sounds like more nominations than actual films in her illustrious oeuvre.  In interviews, she comes across as both funny and down-to-earth.  And much like Pitt is self-deprecating about his celebrity, Winslet jokes about her “Esteemed Career” and nickname of “Corset Kate.”

It’s not that I don’t like both Pitt and Winslet- I do, I do.  They are impossible not to like.  Not only do they have my vote for Prom King and Queen, they certainly deserve credit for making stellar career decisions, avoiding common pitfalls like selling out and Scientology, and being consistently good at what they do.  But maybe – just possibly – the astronomical amount of goodwill towards them, their mountains of awards and accolades, and their choice pick of any role that comes their way, might just be the smallest bit undeserved.  More precisely, their reputations might have more to do with how cool they are perceived to be offscreen, rather than what they do for us onscreen.

Take Pitt, for one: He seems to stay above scrutiny by choosing a variety of roles in a variety of films, but is he particularly adept at any one of them?  I usually employ a simple matrix here, consisting of three categories of performances: The Scene Stealer, The Character Actor and The Star.  A successful actor need not be able to do all three roles, just one and – for these purposes – let’s say he need only do it ONCE.  And I won’t use the straw-man approach and look at Pitt’s worst roles; I’ll choose his best, and play it from there:

The Scene Stealer: The sort of sizzling role that wins Oscars, “The Scene Stealer” is a character both written cool and filmed cool, and is usually viewed from the perspective of a more straight-laced narrator who, like the audience, can’t take his eyes off of him (or her).  This is the scenery-chewing role – this character crackles with electricity. Think Denzel Washington in “Training Day,” Daniel Day Lewis in “Gangs of New York,” Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Carribean” or hell, even Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted.”

Pitt Exhibit A: “Fight Club.”  If Pitt is indeed The Man, the role of Tyler Durden in “Fight Club” was his moment to blast it onscreen – Durden is the quintessential Scene-Stealer role.  Does Pitt pull it off? Not really. He is oddly upstaged by Ed Norton, the straight-man, Luke Wilson-type in the film. (In fact, following “Fight Club,” Norton and Pitt’s careers went off on what I like to view as opposite trajectories.  Norton is the anti-Pitt. He can act like a fucking house on fire, but he’s made shite career decisions. No one cares about his celebrity girlfriends, whether controversial (Courtney Love) or beautiful (Salma Hayek). No one cares about yet-the-next cop drama he’s appearing in.  And no one cares anymore that he can act.  Pop culture loves Brad Pitt, ergo it hates Ed Norton.)

The Character Actor: (more…)