Food and Sense

My brother R. recently asked me why I’m a fan of Jamie Oliver, and I told him that I supported his fight against unhealthy school lunches.  Maybe it just comes from being a parent, but once you see what schools feed kids, it’s hard not to be disgusted and want to do something about it, no matter how small.  It’s just common sense.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution recently ran for about six episodes on ABC on Friday nights.  It focused on Oliver’s sojourn in Huntington, WV – deemed in one study as the unhealthiest place to live in America – to change how people think about food.  He takes a three-pronged approach: he goes into schools to try to change the lunch menu, he works with individuals and families on eating more healthily, and he opens “Jamie’s Kitchen” in downtown Huntington to offer free cooking lessons.

As a viewer, it’s hard not to be supportive of Oliver’s “mission.”  He argues for people to eat less junk food, less processed food, and more fresh food – especially vegetables.  He argues that kids should learn at an early age the value of eating healthy food and not just food that is convenient and/or fast.  He teaches families how to cook – Oliver privileges food that is easy to prepare.  (We frequently see him teaching people how to make a stirfry.)  What’s not to like?  It’s all quite sensible, really.

There are some especially powerful scenes – in one, he demonstrates to the kids what goes into chicken nuggets: basically all of the parts of the chicken that AREN’T the meat.  It’s incredibly gross.  And then he asks the kids if they would really eat the nuggets, and – of course – they would!  Ugghh.  In another, he quizzes gradeschoolers on the names of various vegetables, and none of them can identify tomatoes.  Depressing.

The show combines the inspirational moments of “The Biggest Loser” and “Extreme Home Makeover” by showing how obese men, women, and children embrace Oliver’s message and try to make the necessary changes in their lives.  But the real genius of the show is that they combine this inspirational aspect with the journalistic approach of “Dateline.”  There’s a news documentary aesthetic to the show, in terms of its look, its structure, and its writing.  Oliver is a charismatic lead – he both plays host and star in what happens, taking us into homes, businesses, schools, and elsewhere, asking the questions we would ask and looking for commonsense answers.  He’s trying to change how people think about food and conceptualize it in their lives.  And he’s trying to change a broken system in the town, the state, and even the country.  It’s a great concept that isn’t exactly matched by many other shows on television.

My brother suggested that Oliver is a shameless self-promoter and he’s probably right.  But that’s not the worst thing in the world.  I don’t like Donald Trump, but there are lots of people who cause much more harm.  Still, some elements of the show throw things off for me.  For instance, many of the scenes are shot documentary-style, with only one camera, but often viewers are able to see reaction shots during dialogues that could not have been caught by that one camera.  In other words, they went back and reshot moments to better capture a reaction.  This seems unnecessary to me and raises questions about veracity.  I feel the same way every time they showed someone, from the outside, walking in to “Jamie’s Kitchen” and then switched the shot to the inside, where Oliver is greeting them.  Was there a camera there waiting for them to drive up?  And then did they run inside to film the introductions?  Of course not, and the way the show makes these editing decisions, it seems to me, hurts the credibility of the story they are trying to tell.

While Oliver looks better, more folksy, more winning, for me these moments chip away at his image and tend to make me believe that he really really wants you to like him, to support him, and to be on his side – even if he has to fudge things a bit.  Once you start to blur that line, though, it gets hard to make the case that something is right and something is wrong.  He can’t take a moral stance that draws the line on what is good to eat and what isn’t when he’s often erasing other lines about how to tell a truthful story.  J. and I have watched the show with our two kids.  They enjoy watching with us, and we enjoy it too, and we’ve tried to use it to foster an ongoing conversation about healthy eating, good food, and expanding our palates to include new tastes. But I’ve decided not to problematize their viewing of it for them with an aesthetic critique of methodology that edges into the realm of ideology and jeopardizes the power of Oliver’s message.  Sharing this type of thinking with my kids, at their ages of seven and nine, just isn’t common sense.

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It Just Keeps on Flowing, It Don’t Worry About Where It’s Going

It’s a pretty gray day here, with some heavy clouds and some spots of rain, but I’m paying it no attention.  I’ve got a song in my head that just refuses to quit.  The opening lines of this song are pure gold and put me right in mind of what I’m thinking about in this moment, which is the birth of my youngest, who is seven years old today.

What’s not to love about this tune and this video from the early 1980s?  The crazy stage with its too tight space, the cowboy hat, the haircuts and tight t-shirts, the people on top with tambourines? Everything about this video, in my mind, is all good.

No snark from me today – this is just a fun outdoor concert by a really good band and a lot of appreciative fans.  I can easily imagine myself there, thinking, “I don’t care how hot it is today or the lines at the port-o-pottys, or the miserable beer that’s available and – my God! – how can they charge that much for this swill?”

If I’d have been there I’d have felt the same as the people in the video.  I probably would have been yelling, God bless the South!  The Allman Brothers were ALWAYS that good.

W., buddy, you’re the man – you’re my sunny day!

Not Feeling the Funny

Although an academic, I’m no gleek and indeed I have had very little experience with Glee – I have seen one full episode, more or less, and found it pretty uninteresting.  I haven’t been able to watch much more than that.  I know that lots of people love it, that lots of people are CRAZY about it.  I know that.  I get it.  Well, I get that lots of people love it; I don’t get why they love it, but that’s a discussion, perhaps, for another time.  This post has to do with the latest clip that the gleeks are devouring with great joy.  I first saw it through the Facebook posts of lots of friends: Jane Lynch doing her rendition of Madonna’s “Vogue.”

Now, before I get to the clip, let me just say that I think Jane Lynch is a very good comedienne.  She has quite slowly but very surely moved from quick spots on sitcoms and television dramas to supporting roles in indie films to larger roles in mainstream films.  Her strength is clearly in comedy – she’s had a fabulous run as a supporting actress in a number of films and shows in the past few years and she is brilliant at the deadpan style of playing scenes straight, even while saying the most ridiculous things.  She seems to have mastered this through her experience in Christopher Guest films, but she’s done very well in the Judd Apatow films of the last few years and now has clearly found a home on Glee.  In terms of her role and her lines, the show seems to allow her to both play it straight and wink at the audience at the same time.

But I have to say “seems” in that sentence because I don’t know the show well enough to comment on it.  Which brings me to her rendition of “Vogue.” (What you see is a reverse image of the actual video, which right now is only available on Hulu.  This is from YouTube.  Still, don’t worry, you’ll get the gist of it.)

She’s a great mimic here.  She’s got the vocal intonations down, the hand movements, the look.  She subs in two gestures toward the show – her character’s name and that of a different character – but pretty much everything else is a direct copy of the original video.  Which makes me wonder why so many people are so excited by this video?  A number of friends have written how funny they think this is.  Why?  It doesn’t seem to be a parody, but a copy.  What makes that funny?

Most likely, others will argue that what makes this funny is that it is her character doing the copying of Madonna.  My sense is that her character has opposed the glee club and that she hasn’t done any singing in the show so far – so this would be her first performance.  But I’m still not sure why that would make this funny.  Does the video’s debt to gay African-American dancing in the Atlanta area have something to do with the humor – in placing the “homage” into some sort of broader sociological context that repositions Lynch’s character?

Again, I don’t know.  What I see is a copy, not a parody, not a satire, not any sort of social commentary or even a sendup of the original.  How much of the humor here is dependent on having seen the show?  And, if it is, would we agree that this is indeed something most of us see as fundamentally funny?  Another way of saying this, in the words of a literature professor, just how much does context matter (or how much should we take context into account), when reading a text?

Talk amongst yourselves.

Overmanufacturing Drama

I’ve been watching The Mentalist pretty much from the beginning and have enjoyed it and even written on it a little.  It’s a show that’s done well commercially in that it’s been a big hit for CBS, and something of a surprise hit at that.  But Smon Baker has a rakish charm as Patrick Jane and the cast has good comic timing with one another, so it’s not too hard to see why it’s been successful.

Having said that, I feel that the show is floundering a little.  Narratively, the show is structured for the most part so that each episode is its own distinct unit – there’s a crime and the team works to solve it.  But there are a couple of elements in the show that serve as links to a larger story within the team: for instance, Grace and Wayne have moved from flirtation to romantic relationship, and this has endangered them working together on the team because the rules say that you can’t have a romantic relationship with someone else on the team because it might effect your judgment in a situation or environment.

This rule makes sense, actually, and creates a useful tension in the overall show as it plays out over the course of time.  The problem from my perspective is, though, that I don’t see why the team actually needs either of these two to keep functioning.  What does Grace do well?  She seems a bit of a whiz on the computer and able to do electronic research better than the others on the team.  Rigsby is a strong type who is good in the field.  But is either of them irreplaceable?  Not really.

The team has a new boss, Agent Hightower, who has come in and seems to both want to shake things up and get the team to stick to the rules.  This threatens the team, because they often don’t play by the rules as the go about trying to solve a case.  Jane is at the heart of this, of course, as he often insults witnesses, skirts the rile of law, or goes against the book as he follows his hunches and his readings of people and situations.  But Jane is the team’s closer.  He can get away with what he does because he solves cases.  Hightower isn’t going to get rid of him because he’s the one who gets it done.

She has threatened Theresa Lisbon, the team leader, however.  If Lisbon can’t keep Jane in line, if she can’t resolve the Van Pelt-Rigsby problem, Hightower has said, then she’ll be gone.  That’s all well and good, and what supervisors on television shows are supposed to say.  But the problem is again that Lisbon doesn’t really seem essential to the team.

When have we seen Lisbon do something especially smart or clever or even strategic?  She’s actually someone who seems to want to go by the book, but doesn’t know what to do when members of her team stray from it.  She’s not a particularly strong leader – she just gives orders and others follow.   What case has she solved?  When has her role been especially vital in moving things forward?  Isn’t it easily possible to imagine another character doing the things that she does?

The one thing she does do that is important is that she makes and keeps Jane happy.  When she’s unhappy, moreover, so is he – which is what he told Hightower.  He’s using his own value to the team as leverage to get Hightower to leave Lisbon alone.  That’s fine, I guess, but there’s something in it that seems wrong.  Until the show gives Lisbon the chance to actually demonstrate her worth, I’ll question as a viewer why she is actually so important to the team and what it does – other than her ability to give Jane what he wants.

Of course, what Jane wants is to catch Red John.  We haven’t seen anything about him in a number of months, and it’s not clear when we will again.  Certainly they need to get back to that storyline – the one that pulls everything in the show together, the case that serves as Jane’s actual motivation for even staying on the team.  Without the chance to work on that case, he wouldn’t serve as a consultant to the CBI at all.

The show has become a little distracted with these other storylines, and I understand the impulse to develop characters over the course of time.  But they’re trying to develop dramas in these characters’ lives without actually developing the characters themselves.  And that’s a recipe for long-term disaster, because viewers aren’t going to follow their dramas if they don’t actually care about the characters themselves.  You can’t overmanufacture drama.  You need to trust in your characters, and trust in your viewers to follow their stories.

A Brief Story of My Search for Penguins

I was thinking yesterday about the video I posted last week by The Beautiful South – “You Keep It All In” – and laughing to myself about the use of the person in the penguin costume and how bad that was.

So I went off in search of other music videos with penguins.  The first one I hit on was “Evil is Afraid,” by Insane Clown Posse.  Now, I don’t know too much about Insane Clown Posse – I know they incorporate rapping and heavy guitars, and that they perform in clown makeup and all, but I can’t say that I really know anything about their music.  S I clicked on the video unsure of what I would see.  (Warning: I’m not sure how much you want to watch, depending on your musical predilections, so you might just want to watch enough to just get a taste.)

I’m not sure if Evil is afraid, but God knows that I was after watching this – Zoinks!  And where are the penguins???   I felt misled by Youtube – what type of classification system was at work here?

So, since that video wasn’t really what I was after.  I knew that a little bit of what I was after, and what I wasn’t. I decided I needed to do a touch more research, and I set some ground rules.  I would not search for animated penguins – no, I was on the hunt for people in penguin costumes – and I would not click on the many many entries for something called “Club Penguin,” which seems to be some sort of game in which you take songs and make up your own animated videos for them.  I was also trying to avoid any videos of people dancing in penguin costumes, which seems to be something of a genre itself and who knew that?  No, what I was after, what I hoped to find, was a music video in which someone put on a penguin costume and sought to incorporate it into the video itself.

It took longer than it should have, but soon enough I  found this video.

Here we’re firmly back in the land of the ridiculously bad.  What’s not to love?  The horrible Mad Hatter wardrobe, the over-the-top acting, the weird Batman visual references at the beginning, the sets that are clearly the house and neighborhood of someone in the crew, the shoddy camerawork, even the use of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.”  It warmed my heart to see this – and healed the wounds opened up by Insane Clown Posse.  (But then again, the cast and crew seem to be German, so I guess the outcome of this endeavor was something we could expect – after all, who can forget the luminous “99 Luft Balloons” or “Rock Me Amadeus”?)

All in all, I’m not sure that I can call it a successful endeavor, my search for penguins in music videos, for there really ISN’T a full-fledged use of a penguin costume in the video.  I’m not sure I’m disappointed though, as I feel like I still struck a but of gold.  And I suppose I need not give up – they may still be out there.  And hey, after all, there are other animals, or animal costumes anyway, that pose other possibilities for brilliance.

Songs that are Horrible

or That Song from the Car That You Just Can’t Get Out of Your Head, No Matter How Hard You Try, and My God It’s Just So Horrible

You’re in the car, driving, listening to music with the windows down, digging on the strong Spring sun, so vital after these long winter months.  A song begins with the strumming of an acoustic guitar – steady, simple and straightforward in its chord progressions, comforting in its familiarity, highly melodic but not overbearing.  Complementing your mood as you drive down the road toward your home.

You turn it up a bit.  Little do you know what you have just done to yourself.

The singing begins,

Today is gonna be the day

That they’re gonna throw it back to you

By now you should’ve somehow

Realized what you gotta do

I don’t believe that anybody

Feels the way I do about you now.

“Wonderwall” by Oasis, badboy posterchildren of 90s-style Britpop.  The nasal tone of Liam Gallagher’s voice is a bit overdone as he sings this opening verse, but it actually complements the acoustic strumming of his brother Noel.  You have a few questions about who “they” are in that second line or what exactly “they” are going to “throw back to you,” but you try not to let this get into your train of thought because it’s a beautiful day after all and who wants to think about these things when you can just dig the sound and the sun and the wind through the windows?

The next verse begins with the addition of some stringed instruments and a light snare drum blending in now to buttress the guitar.

Backbeat the word is on the street

That the fire in your heart is out

I’m sure you’ve heard it all before

But you never really had a doubt

I don’t believe that anybody feels

The way I do about you now.

And as this verse ends you begin to realize the trouble you might be in.  “Backbeat the word is on the street/That the fire in your heart is out”.  What the hell does that mean?  Backbeat?  Backbeat?  Really – you couldn’t find anything else to rhyme with “street”?  And what does it mean that the fire in your heart is out?  That the “you” in the song is no longer in love?  No longer brave or courageous or other things we might associate with the fire in one’s heart?  What is the “it” that the “you” has heard all before, and never really doubted?  That no one feels the same way about “you” that “I” do?  That’s not really clear.  And the “now” – does that mean “now” as in “at the present moment”?  As in “not earlier”?  As in “under the present circumstances”?  Or is it just meant to strengthen the conviction of the statement that no one else feels the same way?

By the way, we’re not quite sure WHAT way the “I” feels – love, anger, exasperation, empathy, you name it.  And of course, we can’t be sure exactly that someone else might not actually feel the same way.  It may be that some one does.  But the “I” doesn’t believe this to be true.  Which, of course, doesn’t make it so.

And all the roads we have to walk along are winding

And all the lights that lead us there are blinding

There are many things that I would

Like to say to you

I don’t know how

Somehow this bridge to the chorus doesn’t bother you so much.  Sure, there’s the inevitable lyrical nod to Paul McCartney and “The Long and Winding Road,” which is a pretty tedious and linguistically lackluster gesture, and sure, the use of “Blinding” lights adds absolutely nothing to the imagery other than that the word rhymes with “winding” (Backbeat!), but the last few lines are fine and actually make sense.  The “I” doesn’t know how to say what he wants.  So far, that’s been made pretty clear by the lyrics, because as you listen to the song, you don’t have any clue as to what the “I” is trying to say either!

On to the chorus!

Because maybe

You’re gonna be the one who saves me

And after all

You’re my wonderwall.

Sigh. You wonder if the “maybe” is in the line just to rhyme with “saves me,” and know that the answer is obviously and devastatingly yes.    It doesn’t have to be – the uncertainty of this person being the one who could possibly save the narrator COULD be powerful.  But then you realize that this rhyme echoes exactly what came structurally in the lyrics earlier.  And of course, you have no idea what the “I” needs to be saved FROM.  What’s the crisis?  There’s been no mention of anything, so what’s the problem?  And then, of course, the last two lines of the chorus.  Why the “after all”?  Why, especially, the “AND after all”?  Because the “And” doesn’t make any sense following the lines preceding it, and the “after all” doesn’t make any sense in any case.  And what the hell is a “wonderwall”?  Anyone?  You know it references a George Harrison film and soundtrack from the 1960s and is the name of his first solo album, but what the hell is it as a word or an image or an idea?

Sigh.  It’s an undeniably catchy melody that grabs you and doesn’t let you go, and not necessarily in a bad way.  The chord progression is pretty simple, really, and pretty much the same as it is in most Oasis songs, but that doesn’t have to be all bad – let’s just say they were consistent!  Liam Gallagher’s tonality is bothersome, to be sure, and comes across as badly as most 90s Britpop, but it actually fits in pretty well sonically with what the band does, so you can give it a pass.  But the words, man, the words!  This might be the dumbest song you have ever heard, and you have listened to pop music your whole life, so that’s saying something!

It doesn’t get better.

Today was gonna be the day

But they’ll never throw it back to you

By now you should’ve somehow

Realized what you’re not to do

I don’t believe that anybody

Feels the way I do

About you now.

You can see what they’re going for here – the addition of that negative.  They’ll “never” throw it back to you.  You should have realized what you’re “not” to do.  Clever, very clever.  It really moves things along to now place them in the negative.  It gives us a whole new slant on things, doesn’t it?  Except that all the questions from that opening verse remain unclear – who are “they?”  What is the “it”?  DOES anyone else feel the same?  And just what DOES the “I” feel?  Wait, wait, you realize, you’re not being fully fair.  The “I” feels that “you” might have been “the one who saves me.”  So that might be cleared up, at least.  Thank goodness!  Though does anyone else feel this way?  And, again, save “me” from what exactly?

Back to the bridge!

And all the roads that lead to you were winding

And all the lights that light the way are blinding

There are many things that I would like to say to you

But I don’t know how.

And let’s the repeat the chorus!

I said maybe

You’re gonna be the one who saves me

And after all

You’re my wonderwall

I said maybe

You’re gonna be the one who saves me

And after all

You’re my wonderwall

Said maybe

You’re gonna be the one that saves me

You’re gonna be the one that saves me

You’re gonna be the one that saves me

The repetition of this last line leaves you unclear on so many things.  Nothing has been answered really.  The repetition of the last line elides the “maybe” and seems to make the sentiment more affirmative, more than just possible, more than just “maybe” and now seemingly a reality.  At the same time, however, it seems to be both a prediction and a command, as if the “you” has little choice in the matter – which doesn’t seem very nice, or fair, or considerate for someone who, AFTER ALL, is doing the saving!

Then the song moves toward a slow fade, with a musical interlude leading to a final note.  Huh, you think, as you pull into your garage.  What the hell was that?  What were you thinking when you turned it up – didn’t you recognize it?  Didn’t you know what this might mean?  Didn’t you know the effect this was going to have on you?  You’ll never know what a wonderwall is.  You’ll never be able to make sense of this song.  You’ll always wonder, not so much as what the song “means” because you’re not particularly interested in such a question, but how the hell to even make sense of the lyrics!  They’re nonsensical, and not in a good way!  And they’ll always remain that way.  Always, no matter how many times you hear, no matter how often people try to “explain” it, no matter how many times your wife tells you to shut up because she likes it and why can’t you just stop and let her enjoy it.  No, it will always drive you batty.

No matter how lovely the day, how enjoyable the ride home after a satisfying day at work, how good it felt to put the windows down after the winter, the price is just too high.  This song is going to be stuck inside your head for days – or at least until you can pass it along to someone else, which is why here you are writing about it, hoping to silence its hold on you by getting others to hum along to it and remove its tentaclelike grip on your brain.  Mission accomplished.  Sorry, but it’s something that had to be done.

Enjoy the video, but try not to think about how the clowns, circus and carnival paraphenilia, singing saws, surly Gallagher brothers, expressionless bandmates, stupid visual effects, and one everchanging multicolored guitar only make this whole enterprise all the more confounding, confusing, and banal!

On the Best Films of the Past Decade

This past week, in writing about the films of 2009, I was moved to consider what the best films of the decade were.  In thinking about the films of the past year, and thinking about the very notion of “best,” I realized that this was something of a complicated term for me.

I have argued that the term “best” is an especially loaded one, but that perhaps a fruitful way to conceive of it is as a film that helped us begin to see in a new way, or to see film in a new way.  I suggested Where the Wild Things Are works powerfully for me as this type of film, moreso than any other film of the past year.  But to be fair, I would want to put Avatar as one of the best films of the past decade, because it does indeed start to point us in some interesting directions in terms of its application of 3D technology that exceeds what that technology has offered in the past.  It’s not hard to see that soon enough filmmakers will utilize the technology to do more than titillate the eye, but will devise ways to construct images that operate and function in evermore sophisticated ways.

There really weren’t other films of the past year that had this effect on me – apologies to Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is a wonderful film, and one you really should see if you haven’t, and visually packed with details and wonderful elements but doesn’t really change how we watch a film so much as it celebrates moviemaking, the way all Wes Anderson films celebrate the medium of film.  And I’ve already spoken about the mumblecore films of the last decade, and don’t really want to revisit those here.

Overall, in thinking about truly great films, films that changed the game for me (or that demonstrated a potential path to changing the rules of the game) there were few and far between not only in 2009 but in the 2000s as a whole.  It was a pussy-footed decade insofar as it had to do with film.

What are the films of the last decade that really had a profound effect on you?  I want to suggest a few.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  That was fun, and that was well done.  It took the best of a subculture and it brought it into the mainstream, and brought that technology into a much more accepting place.  It made what was hard to imagine of bodies – floating, flying, spinning – look like an everyday possibility.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another.  Michel Gondry, in this film, took Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay and placed it in the familiar milieu of the everyday life of brokenheartedness, even as unfamiliar things began to take shape during the course of the film.  It’s wonderfully disconcerting visually – in a good way – and forces us to deal with what we cannot control or predict. (Be Kind Rewind is also charming, though more limited, but brings that sense of playfulness to it that is a hallmark of Gondry’s films.)

Few people are going to love David Lynch, but they should – Mulholland Drive is an amazing and upsetting film that forces us to deal with our own expectations of narrative and how narrative is supposed to function.  I still remember my wife saying, after it was over, that the film just didn’t make sense. In my mind, though, there is no rule that narratives have to make sense – what readers/viewers want is not necessarily what storytellers have to provide.  This might make for difficult viewing, but it can still be electric as we witness striking images, set pieces, and scenes.  Lynch isn’t afraid to not fit into a neat little box of sense and clean lines.  I loved it.

I’m Not There is similar.  I liked Todd Haynes’s casting approach and his mix of actors playing the Dylan character, and I liked how these different casting choices seemed to lead the narrative down divergent paths.  It was a hard movie to make sense of, but it was continually compelling visually and narratively it kept you in your seat if off balance.  But off balance isn’t always bad, now is it?  I wonder if anyone will take up the mantle he laid down here.  I haven’t really seen anyone do that yet.

Same is true for Pan’s Labyrinth, an amazingly realized film from Guillermo del Toro.  It’s horrible, wonderful, awe-inspiring, chilling, eye-popping, and always engaging.  It’s tough to turn away, even as you want desperately to turn away.  It’s a tour de force and it takes us into some hard-to-imagine places.  It will be tough to see nature as beneficent ever again.  Zoinks.

What other films?  Children of Men, I thought, was great and deeply satisfying as a dystopic vision and had some amazingly conceived scenes.  But I don’t think it changed how I see films.  Donnie Darko and Southland Tales were two intriguing films by Richard Kelly, but not masterpieces of the medium.

That doesn’t seem like an inspiring list to me, not for a decade.  Let’s place it in context by looking merely at some of the films I recall from the year 1999: American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, Run Lola Run, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, Boys Don’t Cry, All About My Mother, Three Kings, Magnolia, Fight Club, and Being John Malkovich.  That’s a good year, a great year actually, and just about matches, by itself, the past decade as a whole.  Some of these were just interesting and well-done films, but some were what I would call important.  The Matrix was certainly groundbreaking technologically and I think The Blair Witch Project was underrated in its use of aural effects as a deeply affective element of the filmgoing experience – it’s DIY aesthetic has had more of an immediate impact.  Three Kings was prescient in its treatment of war and its use of comic and absurd effects.  I’ve written a touch on Malkovich and don’t need to say more here, though I would reiterate that I just haven’t seen a film in the last ten years that does, or captures on film, what it does.

Fight Club is an amazing film.  The script falls apart at the end, but the speed of the film, through its editing and direction, is mesmerizing.  Brad Pitt is incredibly charismatic in the movie, even if totally bonkers and over the top.  Ed Norton is fine and Helena Bonham Carter is too, but Pitt grabs the film by the throat and doesn’t let go.  I found its dramatization of issues of masculinity and commodity fetishization both astute and amusing, especially because it at first wonderfully captures the rhetoric of self-help ideology and Ikea aesthetics and then brilliantly satirizes the critical standpoint that men have become feminized through commodities and infantilized by self-helpers.  Too many critics were offput by its violence to see the satire at work.

Magnolia.  A film that uses an ensemble cast the way that Altman imagined it could be used – and did in Gosford Park, an excellent film from 2001 – and which doesn’t fall into easy answers about the frustratingly fractured nature of the Los Angeles that it captures.  (Essentially, it’s the anti-Crash.  THANK GOD!)  IT weaves its various plot threads together and Paul Thomas Anderson trusts his great actors to do great work without a heavy hand.  Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly – these are actors who are almost always good.  But has Tom Cruise ever been better?  Melora Walters?  Philip Baker Hall?  Two moments, eleven years later, stand out in my memory.  The frogs.  When the frogs fell, I laughed and said, “Shit.  This guy’s got balls.”  To show a deluge of frogs, to have the courage to put it on film, to knowingly invoke the connections in such a moment, to consciously thrust his film into the intermingling of the allegorical and the literal: I had to hand it to Anderson for his bravado.  And he pulled it off.   The second moment, of course, was when the cast broke into song, singing Aimee Mann’s “Save Me.”  It was goose bump time for me.  It was absurd, it took us out the film, it insisted on its own filmic moment and its own fictiveness, and it still satisfied and did not disrupt the film but actually complemented and amplified the narrative.  It was a brilliant aural moment that challenged the viewers to deal with something they weren’t used to seeing.

Few filmmakers have taken on the aesthetic gauntlet that Anderson threw down with Magnolia.  It’s hard to blame them, really.  You need a strong script, an extremely capable cast, and a vision that won’t be swayed because it is totalizing.  (Sounds like a casting call for Orson Welles.)  The only one that comes to mind is Lars Von Trier.  I wonder if he had seen a rough cut of Magnolia when he filmed Dancer in the Dark, which came out in 2000, only a year after Anderson’s film.  This is a much more emotionally satisfying film than Moulin Rouge – which is in love with its own glimmery surface but, because of its indebtedness to pastiche and postmodern excess, cannot delve into any valid or authentic emotional truth.  The film plays at sorrow, but doesn’t even approach melodrama (compare it to Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, which plays at melodrama, and engages us in deep and authentic regret, despair, and pain).  Dancer in the Dark might have been my most favorite movie of the past decade.  Not at the beginning.  Fifteen minutes in, my wife leaned over to me in the theater and said that this might be the worst movie I had ever seen.  I kind of agreed.  At the end of the film, over two hours later, my wife was sobbing so uncontrollably that other filmgoers who were exiting as the credits rolled stopped to check and see if she was okay.  The film’s use of music is enthralling and more than clever.  Von Trier aesthetically captures the effect of basic sound and its (John) Cagelike relationship to music.  At the same time, his story of heightened melodrama is deeply affecting and brutal.  Like Anderson’s film, we are sucked in.  We can’t get out.  We are wrapped up in something bigger than us and perhaps beyond us.  Slaves to the screen.

That’s great filmmaking, filmmaking that changes the rules of the game for viewers, that makes us see films in a new way, or that makes us see film itself in a new way.  And it’s out there, sometimes.  But there wasn’t enough of it in the last decade.