Page One: Inside the New York Times, Andrew Rossi (2011)

No one with any interest in current events could fail to understand that information moves differently now than it did ten years ago, or ten months ago, or maybe even ten minutes ago. These changes have put obvious and well-documented pressure on “legacy media” companies like the Times. In July of 2002, NYT was trading at $50 a share; this past July it was at about $8 a share.

But you know all that. This movie goes over that territory, but where it really shines is in its depiction not of the Times as a company, but the Times as a collection of individuals. There are scenes where people gather around someone’s desk and hash out what the ethical course of action is vis a vis some situation that’s just arisen. People have principled disagreements, come to conclusions, act on them, and move forward. I found such moments heartening. Whatever else you want to say about the media, the Times, our desperate age, etc., you can’t help but come away from this feeling like these people are truly acting in good faith and truly on a mission for good. They’re probably doomed.

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Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog (2007)

In which the NSF flies Herzog to Antarctica so that he can ask a penguin researcher, “Does a penguin ever go insane when they have simply had it with the colony?” If you love Herzog, this will tickle you pink. Dour laconic condemnations of civilization, breathless Caspar David Friedrich-esque romantic ejaculations in the face of ineffable landscapes, a fascination with damaged and fragile characters that comes across as both exploitative and sympathetic at the same time (the scene with the traumatized man who “escaped” from something he can’t even talk about (East Germany?) and proudly shows Herzog the rucksack he has ready at all times, should he need to escape again, is without question my favorite moment in this film), and always, always, the magnetic attraction to oblivion. When Herzog talks about the dangers of diving under the ice, or how easy it is to get lost in a blizzard, or the way a penguin will sometimes become disoriented and start walking away from rather than toward the life-giving sea, you understand very clearly that he doesn’t dread these disasters; he longs for them.

Herzog continues to make fiction films, but more and more his best attention seems to be directed toward documentaries. (Which, after all, is the more interesting movie, Grizzly Man or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans?) Might it be that for a mature artist, the claptrap of artifice begins to seem an impediment rather than an aid to the realization of one’s dramatic — and even aesthetic — goals? Discuss.

Inside Job, Charles Ferguson (2010)

If you read the New York Times and watch Frontline you already know most of this stuff, but this is nonetheless a sleek and efficient summary to force your libertarian uncle to watch, should you require a means of explaining to him in 108 minutes just why those damned hippies camped out on Wall Street are so irked. I particularly enjoyed Ferguson’s invasion of the business schools at Harvard and Columbia, where economics professors are routinely paid huge sums to say nice things about deregulation but piously opine that they are immune to conflict of interest issues. The professors’ ensuing dudgeons are pathetic to watch; incredibly, I end up feeling more sympathetic toward the tasteless Cristal-swilling johns downtown, who at least wear their avarice right on their shiny thousand-dollar sleeves.

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These endless summer days I ingest culture faster than I can process it. In addition to a lot of material about PTSD, which I’m reading for a writing project, this is what’s been passing in front of my eyeballs. 

White Material, Claire Denis (2009). Denis goes back to Africa. Isabelle Hupert makes me nervous. The politics here are a mess, totally confused. A good example of how sloppy thinking likes to masquerade as ambiguity. But it’s Claire Denis, so of course we must still love it.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola (2010). Just letting the camera keep running on a lifeless scene doesn’t make it Cassavetes. This is a deeply boring movie.

Another Year, Mike Leigh (2010). Another heartbreaker from Mike Leigh. It’s not really a story so much as it is a kind of temporal vitrine, in which are displayed a half-dozen fully-realized characters, interacting with each other and trying to be alive.

True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen (2010). Lacks the Coen whimsy of Fargo, etc. and also the Coen fatedness of No Country for Old Men. Fine, but neither here nor there.

F for Fake, Orson Welles (1973). Sloppy, self-indulgent, self-important, gimmicky, dull. And that’s coming from someone who’s genuinely interested in and who has great patience for this theme. Poor old fucker.

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (2010). Nice doc. Lots of fascinating footage of Village life in the 60’s.

The Fighter, David O. Russell (2010). Stolid family drama, worth seeing. Has the kind of genuineness and moral seriousness of purpose you rarely see at the multiplex these days. It’s about a hundred times less interesting than, say, Raging Bull, but I think contemporary audiences are so incredibly grateful when they’re not pandered to, they wind up thinking something like this is art for the ages.

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay (1994). Perfect idea, poorly executed with slack, repetitive prose and a lot of unnecessary self-dealing.

Speed the Plow, David Mamet (1988). Dialogue perfection. Perfect dramatic efficiency.

Still Life: A Documentary, Emily Mann (1982). Really lively, allusive, slippery drama about the collision of eros and thanatos in the post-war life of a Vietnam veteran.

Lethal Warriors, David Philipps (2010). Philipps didn’t ask for this job; he was a sports writer in Colorado Springs when the “Band of Brothers” started coming back from Iraq and killing each other and others. Philipps does an admirable job of stepping up and becoming a real reporter, covering some of the saddest stories of the war. Good, thorough, clear reporting. See also the Frontline episode, The Wounded Platoon.

Louie, Louis C.K. (2010-). Makes Seinfeld look like Happy Days.

The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni (1975). Oh, it’s horribly pretentious and aimless and even sometimes irresponsible, but it’s also of course gorgeous and dizzying poetry. I had to go get my camera to take pictures of it. Then I had to spend an hour planning a trip to Andalusia. 

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Been clambering up this Alp since May. Certainly skimmed some of the later Settembrini discourses, but I genuinely enjoyed almost all of these 700 pages. Took extensive notes elsewhere. This is utterly worth your time. Read it while you’re young. What’s it about? It’s about a young man who decides — the verb is too strong — to absent himself from history.

Port of Shadows, Marcel Carné (1938). Oh, France. Merci pour Michèle Morgan.

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The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro (1995). Limpid prose kept me reading all 9000 pages, but there’s not much there there.

Youth in Revolt, Miguel Arteta (2009).
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Edgar Wright (2010).
Cleverish enough, I guess. I like this Michael Cera fine, but why can’t the protagonist in these things ever be a girl?

Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham (2005). Cunningham’s a lovely writer sentence by sentence. The concept seemed too high-concept for me at first, but I grew into it and wound up enjoying this a great deal.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (2010). One of the last great showbiz workaholics.

The Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1988). If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t, you should.

Style Wars, Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant (1983). Terrific, fascinating documentary about the rise of graffiti and hip hop culture. Amazing to see NYC in the early 80’s and realize how much time has gone by. Provided me with at least one long-sought source for a sample I’d wondered about: “You only specialize in one thing, you can’t call yourself the all-out king.”

Foul Play, Colin Higgins (1978). Second only to Seems Like Old Times on my list of Hawn/Chase childhood favorites. One of those 70’s flicks that’s simultaneously total fluff and highly clever.

The Informers, Juan Gabriel Vasquez (2004). There was no reason not to like this, but for some reason I couldn’t engage with it.

Spies of the Balkans, Alan Furst (2010)
The Arms Maker of Berlin, Dan Fesperman (2009)
WWII espionage fiction: My annual holiday indulgence. A return to form for Furst, who seemed to me to be phoning it in the last few times. I blame Fesperman for not being Furst, but that’s of course unfair.

The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko (2010). This isn’t perfect, but it’s very good, and it gives me a lot of hope. A reasonably serious and insightful story about a family of two moms and two kids going through a crisis of confidence, written and directed by an out Lesbian. Some might say that the achievement of the movie is that it doesn’t even matter that the parents are gay, that it’s just a story about a family crisis. That’s only about half true. The parents’ Lesbianism is integral to the story, but it doesn’t determine the story. To me, this seems like a tremendous achievement; the piece neither claims special status for the couple nor asserts that this couple is just like any other. The view of human sexuality on offer here is also refreshing. It ain’t Foucault, but it’s way more sophisticated than the permanent adolescence Hollywood usually peddles in the bedroom.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick (2006)

Just what I needed: More corporate/puritanical cultural manipulation to be pissed off about. Dick is an annoying person and is overly fond of ginning up gotcha moments, but here, as in Outrage, his basic premise and his, well, outrage, are well founded. The MPAA rating system effectively controls what does and does not appear on the country’s movie screens, and it’s run as a homophobic misogynist pro-war star chamber.

I feel sad. I think I’m going to go to bed.

GasLand, Josh Fox (2010)

So we’ve all heard that one solution to the energy and global warming crises is to turn from petroleum to alternative fuels, like for instance natural gas. Natural gas! It’s awesome! It’s clean and cheap and plentiful and domestic! Well, guess what. Big corporations are drilling down into shale formations all over the country, and blasting toxic fluid down the holes to free up the gas so they can suck it out for you. This is causing widespread pollution of groundwater reservoirs, to such an extent that this guy in this picture here is able to set his tap water on fire.

You can find out all about it here. http://gaslandthemovie.com/

It’s a terrible situation but, the formalist must take note, a very fine movie. Fox is personally involved in the problem — a gas company wants to drill on his own property in upstate New York — and acts not as a narrator of the film but as a character in it, to great effect. An extremely engaging and effective piece of agitprop.