Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Category: Film/TV

Inception

I can’t remember the last time I’ve a movie as straightforward as Inception. The idea at the heart of the film is simple: no one person (or group of people) can reproduce someone else’s thought process; we will always know what ideas were born in our brains, and which ones weren’t. It’s a tribute to the idea that every waking thought we have is ours and ours alone, and it would be impossible, or simply very difficult, for an outside force to plant just one in our brain without us knowing, even if our brains are full of millions and millions of ideas. In fact, it’s because of those millions of ideas that it’s impossible—how can anyone know what it’s really like to be you, and how you would think?

For all of Inception’s plot twists, I held to the idea and I was stewarded to the end, and everything held up. Actually, after the last shot, I thought the idea was reinforced to the point of certainty, and then I started thinking back to the other “totems” characters had used to ground themselves in the “real” world—Why a dice? Why a pawn?—and then I realized everything in the movie was in its right place, layers firmly stacked upon layers, in the service of an unshakable idea, like a massive pyramid resting upon its tip, unable to be knocked over.

(Remember to check TEH TUMBLR for this and other stuff.)

House and home, House and Holmes

It’s a little before 6:40 a.m. here in Phoenix, and I’m sipping on McDonald’s coffee and drinking down some SportsCenter between World Cup games. Grant’s girlfriend has to be at work at some ungodly hour that coincides with the early games, so I woke up from my spot on the floor and clicked on Netherlands/Denmark and decided not to go back to sleep once it was over. I justified it by telling myself it was better to get back on East Coast time early, but mostly I wanted the coffee.

Yesterday I spent the majority of the day taping up Grant’s new home—which he bought—so that the other worker ants could paint around me. I was a taping machine. I didn’t paint the walls at all, to the point where my dad forced me to paint my own clothes so that I fit in with everybody else. To my friend Sam, whose novelty bachelor party shirt I painted over, I apologize.

Oh shit, Italy plays today. That gives me about four hours to learn the Paraguayan national anthem.

No, I do not like Italy, despite the quarter-blood I cling to despite my very English name. (I swear I’m from Sicily! Or at least my right leg is.) They play boring football and they flop, and they threw Amanda Knox in jail for being flighty and kept her there. I’m not comfortable with the decision to imprison very likely innocent American girls, no matter how ditzy they are. In fact, I just searched the entire Paraguayan penal code and didn’t find it in there anywhere. It’s settled: Go Paraguay. (Except imagine that in another language.)

Here is Paraguay’s flag:

Toward the end of yesterday, after the basketball game, Grant and I entered the gloaming of my vacation, where it was too early to go to sleep but too late to do much else. We decided to buy a movie through the TV and after a quick negotiation settled on Sherlock Holmes, which neither of us particularly wanted to see. Grant made it through 15 minutes; I made it through a Coke Zero-aided 40. My thoughts on the movie were exactly was I suspected they would be: if you like Holmes, just watch House. Simpler execution of the same idea, and except for the Flight Club stuff, Downey’s basically doing a Hugh Laurie impression.

Oh, and Rachel McAdams is no Dr. Lisa Cuddy. Consider it said.

Where the Lost discussion has gone

Mike wrote:

We are to believe that everyone is working out their post-death, pre-heaven issues with some baloney scrambled-up existence? Why? It’s pointless.

To which I replied:

How is that different from regular life?

Or maybe more to the point: Why wait until you die to go after the things that you want?

Have at it.

I want a new drug

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about television, it’s not to get worked up about a series finale, or to read too much into one. In all but the rarest cases, we follow our television shows like we’re taking a drug, and expect that final, last hit to be the one that validates all the rest of them—to be the one that shows some sort of clarity for our actions, that absolves us for the dozens or hundreds of hours we’ve sat on a couch, staring at a screen, in a life where people outside are interacting with each other. This is, of course, not how drugs work: The returns are always diminishing. You’re always chasing that first hit again. This is, of course, also exactly how drugs work: When you’re chasing it, you don’t realize the futility of your quest, otherwise you wouldn’t do it. You have a delusion that there is supreme clarity at the end of this path simply so that you will allow yourself to follow it, and you do so because it feels good.

There was one series finale that permanently punctured a hole in this delusion, that showed you what this addiction was really worth, and basically smacked across the mouth the people who believe that television “owes” them something: it was that of The Sopranos, the one modern ending to really be all that instructive in terms of understanding how the medium really works. You want answers? Fuck you, David Chase said. Television is not about answers, it’s not about closure, it’s about catnip voyeurism even in the best of cases. Anyone who thought The Sopranos still “owes” them something is missing the gift in front of their face: A way out. Permanently lower your expectations, Chase was saying, because television will never love you the way you love it, and television is never going away. Learn to deal with it, or spend your life being disappointed. Enjoy the ride if you can, but might it be better never to take the ride at all?

I confess to being something of a Lost apologist: the show was not without its flaws, but it created drama out of nothing better than any show I can remember. My favorite example from this season was when Jack destroyed the mirror at the top of the lighthouse and it seemed like this big deal. I was basically shaking when it cut to commercial before I realized that I had known about the mirror for about two minutes before it was destroyed. It felt like a big deal, and maybe it was for Jack’s character arc, but it was something I hadn’t known existed when I had started the evening. Then, I’m sure, the writers went back to some sort of Dogen-themed subplot I couldn’t stand, but I was satisfied. I had my fix for the day.

So then what to say about the logical problems of the finale? I’m not talking about the lack of answers for really anything having to do with the island. I’m grateful for that. I didn’t want some post-facto explanation about what this place “meant,” as if was anything more than a convenient tableau to create drama. I didn’t want answers where they clearly didn’t exist. For example, the Smoke Monster. What and why? We got nothing, and that’s perfect for me. And the island: What was it? Turns out it was an island, and really entirely separate from the ultimate lessons of Lost. That’s fine too. It, like everywhere else in the world, was just a place where things happen.

No, my problem with the finale—in retrospect—is the final scene, where the castaways are all huddled in the multidenominational church in Purgatorytown, waiting to really die, or whatever. I don’t even have a problem with the conceit. What I have a problem with is what Christian Shephard said: The reason that this particular group of people was assembled was that they had spent the most important years of their lives together, despite the fact that several of these people escaped the island. Are we to believe that nothing important enough happened when Kate and Sawyer got back to L.A. (if they did) for the rest of their lives, and that’s why it was this group that their souls had, consciously or not, chosen to meld with to ease everyone’s transition to the afterlife?

And here is where I reconcile my television problem the way some people might reconcile their cocaine problems. I realize that the entire setup was a conceit to get everyone in the same room so that you feel like it’s all been “worth it,” that you can feel good for these characters and about yourself as you both move on… but why am I supposed to be an expert on “TV conceits?” Why should I care? It’s just another way of feeding the addiction. I liked Lost, both as a series and as a finale, but I’m under no illusions about what it was and wasn’t. It was good popcorn fun couched in the world of survival and the language of philosophy. It wasn’t more than that. I might be ready for something different. I might be ready to even heed the lessons of the show: to focus on life as it happens, to spend more time with the people I’m around rather than falling back on the company of a mostly superficial, compelling TV show, and to do everything I can to enjoy the real things in this world before it cuts to black.

UPDATED THOUGHTS: I was wrong to admonish the final scene for being a TV conceit. I thought about them earlier today and came to the same conclusion Jeff Jensen was, in a sideways world somewhere, banging out on a keyboard:

Personally, I don’t think Lost was promoting one faith over another, and I don’t think Lost was sketching an afterlife cosmology. I think the show was offering us an allegory for how life should be lived — with an ongoing effort to understand each other and ourselves; that such a project is best undertaken with a community of people.

I also think, as I wrote in the comments, that the finale was just great.

Conan on TBS

In retrospect, this makes sense. Everyone assumed the FOX thing was alive because it seemed like it should be, but mainly based on some very early, pre-financial assessment anonymous quotes. The other ideas, like a show for the web or bumping the Comedy Central dudes (which was never real talk) were never really substantive, and where does that leave us? Here. TBS has been trying to push itself as funny for a long time, and now they’ve put money behind it.

I think the real reason people are surprised or upset is that this seems to be a letdown for the Conan-as-martyr crowd, who wanted him to raise keep raising hell on the back of the NBC fiasco. But at some point you need to turn the page, and he’s done that today. In fact, I would say it’s smart not to let this play out longer than necessary, before the focus gets put on why Conan was forced out in the first place, and that becomes the narrative. With the tour starting today, everything is in place for him to succeed on some level from here on out. He was never going to beat Letterman or Leno in the ratings, so it seems foolish to sit back and wait for an opportunity for that to happen.

Plus, anything that pushes George Lopez later is fine with me.

Also: We’re number four! Take that, Nate.

Movies on my shelf: The Godfather

The Godfather is one of those things that I always wanted to know about when I was in high school but only got to know about in college — and have tried, desperately, to pretend that the movie (series) is some fundamental part of my upbringing when the fact is it’s simply not. Sure I like and appreciate the film(s), but I wouldn’t cry myself to sleep if they went away forever. I could do without it easier than I could do without Major League, which probably tells you where I’m coming from as a movie reviewer. I suspect I’m in the minority with that particular comparison, and for that I’d probably blame television and growing up with a single mother. Roger Ebert recently tweeted something to the effect that kids like good movies until you take them to Transformers or some crap American blockbuster like that; I was, for all my braininess, a consumer of the Hollywood Movie System and didn’t know better. Now that I do know better — and it took 32 years for it to really sink in — I still love Major League, but I’ve already topped out my appreciation for The Godfather. Why? Because for years, The Godfather was the movie I wanted to understand, so I watched it over and over (over a period of years and not, like consecutively) and grinded every nuance I could “appreciate” into the ground. I wasn’t alone. Bill Simmons made a habit of doing shit like this, as did Ravi and others of my friends who really wanted to love the movie. But at this point, what can I say about it that hasn’t been said? It’s the Mona Lisa, and I feel like one of the hundreds of people crowded around it, trying to take a photograph. I can reconstruct it from memory, and it brings me no real joy. The theme song has been playing in my head since I devised this little blog conceit in a fit of boredom, and I have a headache. (The Godfather Trilogy is at the top left of my movie shelf, which is why it came first. It is there because it comes in a jet-black box, and my movies, like my books, are color-coded. You can take the weed out of the boy, but you can’t kill the stoner.) I’m not calling The Godfather a bad or even less-than-great movie. I just can’t imagine popping it in anytime in the next five years. Stuck in the corner, it’s a museum piece.

Shutter Island

Shutter Island may be, when 2010 is over and done with, the scariest movie to come out this year. It’s not just the filmmaking — it’s the premise. Effectively we have an entire genre of movies from The Matrix t0 Avatar that embrace the concept of living through a vessel, in some sense, for good or ill. At the same time it’s a concept we’ve grasped pretty firmly with the explosion of the Internet and on which David Foster Wallace hit pretty surely on the nose in Infinite Jest, with characters conversing basically via Skype (this was published in 1994) but wearing all manner of absurd masks to adopt new personas/conceal their real ones. I have a Facebook account and a Twitter account and a blog with my name on it and different commenter names on various blogs. In many ways, I can choose exactly who I want to be on a daily basis.

Shutter Island takes that freedom and shoves it right back in your face. It says: No. All of your efforts to outrun the past will fail. Your avatar will never be strong enough. There is no time but now, no day but today, and you are nothing more than the sum of your days. In an era where literally everything points in the opposite direction, Shutter Island is terrifying because it’s right.

The Ghost Writer

I spent a good deal of yesterday doing things and feeling like I was doing nothing, so I resolved to see a movie, even if I had to do so by myself. I had to do so by myself. I figured this would be a good time to see The Ghost Writer.

I wanted to see The Ghost Writer for three reasons: it got good reviews; some college friends had recently extolled Roman Polanski’s brilliance; and because it is set on Martha’s Vineyard — or, for the purposes of this discussion, “Martha’s Vineyard.” One will never know if the film’s details about the island wouldn’t have amusingly thrashed between spot-on or just poorly researched if Polanski wasn’t effectively banned from shooting there, but obviously catching what was and wasn’t “real” was part of the film’s charm for me. It’s probably better that I went alone.

To give a quick summary: A British writer (Ewan McGregor, “The Ghost”) is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of a Tony Blair-like former P.M. (Pierce Brosnan, “Adam Lang”), who is holed up for the winter on an island in the United States of America that looks a lot like Martha’s Vineyard, and shares many place names with it. The Ghost shows up, begins work on the project and discovers unexpected levels of complexity. Things happen, and he becomes part of the things, and that’s all I’ll say. It’s worth seeing, and what I’m about to say has nothing to do with that.

I will note first off that the words “Martha’s Vineyard” are neither spoken nor shown at any point during the movie; the Ghost is simply told he will be going to “an island in the States.” The very opening shot is of a passenger/car ferry that looks externally like none of the boats currently floating between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven but which opens to find an identical interior to those. The stage is set for the Royale-With-Cheese Vineyard; it’s the little things that are different. The Ghost gets to the island by 747/puddlejumper/ferry, adding an unnecessary step (puddlejumper/ferry is an either/or proposition) but one that already had me smirking for an unrelated reason: If there had been no other clue that this wasn’t really home, the color of the water alone, an unforgiving slate gray, would have been an immediate giveaway. Our water always smacks of deep blue.

The movie was actually filmed in Northern Germany, and I’ll say this: Much of the going-to and coming-from Lang’s house takes place on a road that is indistinguishable from Moshup Trail, and the adjacent beach also duplicated Aquinnah. Well played. The problem here is not simply that somehow the Ghost must re-enter a wooded wilderness (also, with its exceedingly tall, North Sea-stripped trees, not the Vineyard) before getting to Lang’s beachfront property, but that can be forgiven as another plot necessity. More urgently, the house, in its low-rise white-brick mod/70’s/Euro style, is something that doesn’t have an analog on real life-M.V. and probably never will, which isn’t to say it could never happen. If it did, the kids would be itching to party there, and would probably succeed.

The in-town shots were pretty spot-on, and a couple times I wondering if I wasn’t actually looking at B-roll footage of Edgartown. I wasn’t. The townsfolk were conspicuously without accents, and the names of places weren’t exactly spot on, nor were their locations. At one point, the Ghost asks for a map of the island, which the camera consults only fleetingly. I caught the word “Chilmark” but didn’t catch the landscape — again, it looked a little off. While the Ghost’s car laudably directs him to “Edgartown Vineyard” at one point, the ferry travels between an unnamed off-island port and the fictional town of “Old Haven.” It’s hard to know whether this is sloppiness or intentional blurring of reality due to Polanski’s inability to actually see or film the Vineyard; maybe it’s a sly way of saying his America isn’t our America, and that we’re seeing the America of his memory. The entire movie is dream-like, and this brought it to another level for me… but obviously, I was one of the few people paying attention to every last detail.

This could easily lead into a discussion of how places are represented on film, and what effect it has on the moviegoing experience. Take Spider-Man 2, for instance, which stages a critical fight scene on an imaginary elevated train in Manhattan — less New York reimagined than contempt for the audiences in the know — unlike, say, in When Harry Met Sally, when the couple departs a second-tier university on the South Side, heading to New York, and finds themselves on scenic North Lake Shore Drive, a detour of at least an hour’s worth of violent arguments. Anyone familiar with Chicago would have gotten it immediately: Dumb, but it looks really nice. Cinema is bursting with examples like these, and I think it comes down to respecting your audience. I’ve got no problem with The Ghost Writer. I liked the scavenger hunt element.

There were a couple other nice touches. One was that Jim Belushi has a bit part. He’s a well-known Vineyard guy whose brother is buried there, and to whom I sat next once at a restaurant where Belushi was known to be friends with the chef… who came and talked to my mom first. This is probably because Belushi and the chef had a long night ahead (sniff), but I didn’t know that at the time. I was damn proud of her.

The other part was when Olivia “I wrote a hit play” Williams was walking the beach under gray skies, nose scrunched, disapproving of the wind-whipped landscape of which she had become a part. “I just want to go home,” she said, with more than a hint of disgust. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud, because no one else would have gotten it. The difference was that her exile wasn’t self-imposed. I, too, want to go home, but at this point home is as much Polanski’s Vineyard as it is the real one. I’ve let the real one drift away from me. The only way to stop it from going any further, I suppose, is to trap it firmly underfoot like a piece of paper pulled by the breeze.

ESPN: Making an example of Kornheiser

ESPN suspended Tony Kornheiser for two weeks ostensibly because he criticized Hannah Storm’s wardrobe, but he also criticized Chris Berman’s weight.

ESPN’s making an example of Kornheiser, throwing down the gauntlet against both perceived misogyny (good move) and intra-company criticism (bad move). Two weeks wouldn’t seem like much if Kornhesier didn’t co-host the only consistently bearable show on the network, but he does. For what it’s worth, he did what he could to get in front of the story, apologizing to Storm both publicly (on his radio show) and privately. In this sense, and only this one, his a victim of his own adulthood. By drawing attention to himself by doing the adult thing, ESPN did what it does — rule over its kingdom like a bunch of ecstatic-happy-to-be-here College Republicans. Having already admitted he was wrong — and he was wrong — ESPN inflicted punishment that they knew he would take without incident to teach the dumbasses who work there, which is basically everyone else, not to do this type of stuff.

The whole thing will go away soon enough, and I’m sure we’ll be treated to an Inside SportsCenter commercial where the two yuk it up at Kornheiser’s expense. If this keeps a less visible woman from getting mistreated by a less self-aware guy, fine with me.

Credit Where Credit is Due

I’ll give HBO credit for one thing w/r/t How to Make it in America — buying off Gawker Media. Well played publicity from the POV of getting the show out there and nipping/forestalling the absolutely murderous trashing it would have received on a weekly basis on their 87 sites. Instead we get the Kabuki theater of semi-positive reviews, which is amusing enough in its own right.