Review: Taking Woodstock

Click here for the review.
Something I didn’t even have the time or space to get into in the review — not without severely trying the limits of the readers’ patience — is how the movie’s cheapness and the way it lazily taps into a manufactured vibe of a mythological entity known as Woodstock is such a sad turn from the way things briefly were. For a while there in the 20th century, there actually was a counterculture, and they emerged as a buying force so powerful that you got pop products that spoke eloquently about the struggle for social justice and the idiocy of war. It’s not that I think youth has changed too much since then; it’s that they’re no longer buying that stuff in the same way. The major pop stars of today aren’t making songs about politics or war; you can tell because the few who do (Springsteen, Green Day, a couple others) are instantly called out and labeled as different and used as a kind of weapon in a political ground fight. (I can’t even begin to dissect that Dixie Chicks had a hit single that attacked Vietnam but were ostracized for speaking out against its Generation Y counterpart in Iraq.) But that atmosphere is precisely what would make that kind of pop art accessible today if artists would just make it. It’s almost like we’ve returned to that polarized time in the 1960s when some young people were authoritarian squares and some were pushing for a better way to live.
And so part of the movie’s failure is the way it doesn’t even try to deal with how youth culture and marketing and politics and etc. played into each other in 1969, which I think is the only way to make even a comedy make sense, especially if you’re Ang Lee.

Letter To A Young Man Moving To Los Angeles

So you’re moving to Los Angeles. Good choice. It’s a sprawling, vibrant, insane city. There will always be something to do or see, someplace to go, some new road to chart. But if you’ve got a minute, I’ve got some advice.
1. Buy a Thomas Guide. Keep it in your car.
2. Stay out of the really bad parts of the Valley. If you wind up there, stay east. The closer to Ventura Blvd., the better.
3. Don’t take yourself so seriously. It’s the only way to get other people to.
4. Do big things badly, as the man said. Screw up so completely that there’s no way to put out the fire, just contain it and minimize the burns. The freer you are to fail, the more willing you will be to take the chances that will lead to a success that’s more rewarding than you realize.
5. You won’t do #4 that well, or at all, for a while. That’s normal, and when you think about it, not doing it is kind of like doing it. But don’t forget it.
6. Learn to love guacamole. It’s a life-changer.
7. The worst thing about the traffic here is its unpredictability. Sometimes the 101 south will be clogged at like 1 p.m. on a Saturday, just because. Learn to deal.
8. And so help me, do not become one of those people who wants to get on the 134 and waits until the last possible minute to get over. Or one of those people who drives into an intersection with no guarantee to go through it, if cars are backed up after the light. Then you cause jams, and you are an ass. People who drive like that are worse than Republicans; at least bad drivers are usually self-aware enough to be able to change their behavior.
9. The Arclight is the best theater in the country. There are many great theaters nationwide that offer special screenings or serve food and beer, and this has that, too. But for an honestly top-level experience, you cannot beat the Arclight. Period. The one in Sherman Oaks is still very good, and much better than a typical multiplex, but there is absolutely no topping the original one in Hollywood. Not at all. Anyone who says different is lying or misinformed. Make it your cathedral.
10. The Kogi truck sells overrated tacos. Pinkberry sells overrated yogurt. Sprinkles sells overrated cupcakes. Avoid buzzy trends and just look for good places to be.
11. You know those annoying girls and douchey guys you see on show like “The Hills”? They’re real. Just stay away from them. A good rule of thumb is just to never go to a club, since that’s where the asshats hang out. Find a good bar, or dive bar.
12. Speaking of which: The Scarlet Lady Saloon in Culver City, where Sepulveda hits Sawtelle, is probably the best bar in the city. It’s a dive, and it’s just a little brighter inside than you’d expect, but it’s got a great bar staff, colorful locals, karaoke on the weekens, and an all-around relaxed vibe. It’s also two doors down from Roger’s Exciting Tattle-Tale Room, a dive bar so gross it’s not uncommon for hookers to use it as a pit stop. You’ll love it.
12(a). Seriously, don’t knock karaoke. Learn to kill on one or two songs, and you’re set.
13. Amoeba has most anything you’re looking for. The only artist I’ve never been able to find there is Eytan Mirsky, but that’s a rare exception. The best thing is that they’ve got an amazing churn on new arrivals in all genres, so visiting the artist sections for your favorite bands can yield something new every time, and often for cheaper than you’d expect. Tons of great DVDs, as well. It’s your new favorite store.
14. Go to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. Order the Carol C. and a glass of tea. Know happiness.
15. The best guac in town is at Tere’s Mexican Grill, southeast corner of Melrose and Cahuenga.
16. People back home will ask you on a regular basis if you’ve seen any celebrities. They will ask this with an expectant and hopeful tone, as if there’s a park where all the famous people hang out and anyone’s allowed to hang out with them. Get used to it. What they don’t realize, and what you need to remember, is that people who work in the business are just people, and this is a company town where a lot of industry employees live. That’s it. Some like being approached, some don’t; it’s better to err on the side of caution.
17. Yes, In-N-Out Burger is a classic experience and a staple of life in L.A., but a better meal can be had at The Habit. Hands down.
18. Go ahead and use the carpool lane on entrance ramps. They’re almost never monitored (and you can get out easily if they are), and you can breeze by the people waiting for the light to turn green. Totally worth it.
19. Valet if possible. When you get here, you will resist this, and will look for a place to park on the street even though it’s still like two blocks from the restaurant and there’s not an easy place to cross the street. You will think, “I came from a land of free and abundant parking, and I have no truck with paying to park unless absolutely necessary.” But dude, look around. This town is falling all over itself for lack of place to put stuff, and you’ll be paying to park in garages more than ever. And a valet service is just a necessary evil and a cost you will eventually begin to factor into a night out. It’s one of the best conveniences you can get for just a few bucks. Believe me.
20. If you live in the Valley, take the Flyaway shuttle to LAX if you have to travel. Or fly out of Burbank if you just don’t want to deal with a crowd. But for LAX, the Flyaway service is key.
21. Always tip the bartender well, especially if you begin to frequent the place. That’s how you get strong pours.
22. The beach is overrated. Never go on a Saturday.
23. Watch out for intersections in Hollywood and West Hollywood: A lot of them have cameras that will snap you running a red light. And they will find you and send you the ticket. Off the top of my head, there’s one at Sunset and Cahuenga, and several along Fairfax. (Check here for more.)
24. Always check signs when you park in a residential area.
25. Never go to any place that charges a cover.
26. Never settle.
Good luck,

The Good

I’ve been dealing lately with the larger issues that attend criticism, like why people see bad movies or why it’s important to value honesty in stories. These posts are largely born of a desire to constantly wrestle with and come to an understanding of my relationship with quality in film, and what it means to wrestle with it, and what it means to want to wrestle with it, and so on. Basically, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I feel about how I feel. I do it because I respect the work, and the art.
Just as examining the motives behind intentionally seeing a bad movie led me to think about what’s worth seeing in the first place, thinking about what makes a film worthwhile (e.g. emotional and narrative honesty) led me to realize what I’ve known for years: There is such a thing as an objective good in art and film. I wrote a paper about the subject for a philosophy course in college, and my convictions have only grown stronger with time. To pretend otherwise is a disservice to myself, and and all readers, and the film itself.
It’s not at all wrong to respond to what moves you (keeping in mind, for now, that it’s a good idea to think about what moves you and what you want to move you, etc.). A large part of art and film’s appeal is the way it strikes an individual viewer. This is often tied to what’s happening in the viewer’s life at the time, whether it’s an old man jarred to vivid recollection by a war film or a young woman moved to tears by a movie reflecting the inexpressible longing that comes with growing up. There is nothing at all wrong with these reactions, and everything right with them: Movies are weird because we view them in groups but react to them in our own ways, often reaching wildly different emotional outcomes than the people sitting next to us. And that’s wonderful.
But if left unchecked, the relativistic thinking that welcomes different reactions to a film from different viewers can replace the notion that films can actually be rightly called good or bad, and that’s a dark road to walk. If your favorite movie is Son-in-Law and mine is The Godfather: Part II, you can reasonably be said to have forfeited your claim on intellectual rigor at the expense of following the basest instincts of your gut, refusing to ask what you respond to and why, and devaluing art for the sake of cheap reflex. There are endless shades of nuance to be had in spirited film debate, but there are certain definable points past which a person can be said to be wrong or right. And it has to be this way.
Yes, a lot of movies are made to be disposable commercial products for their parent studios, but the artists involved are often doing their best to make a good work. And why? What does that even mean? Where does that effort come from, and more importantly, toward what is it striving? These men and women, these writers and directors and actors and everyone; they aren’t just walking in front of a camera and reciting lines, or arbitrarily filming a scene and then stopping. They are working to create something honest and smart and emotive, something that strikes the heart in the best way. They are working to make art, and when they succeed, it’s because they’ve created something identifiable as good, and not because the crowd dictates it but because the crowd recognizes in the art a reflection of the timeless aspects of goodness and quality that are in the best art. These creators labor to make something true, and when they do, it’s something to see.
How could anyone ever hope to argue that there is no ultimate ideal of goodness? How could anyone ever hope to ignore the work and beauty and balance in a great work of art? There is composition and framing and color and writing and speech and tone and bodies and movement and music and presentation and on and on, these aspects that have histories and rules that are never better than in those works that unite them all and create something so much greater than the sum of their shaking parts. Twain was wrong when he said that learning to pilot a steamboat diminished his awe of the Mississippi; to know what it takes to write a story, evoke an emotion with color — these are things that highlight and enhance the experience, give it life and wing. To study the depths of the river and begin to grasp its might, and to then learn how to navigate it? That’s what it is to know magic and work art, and immersing yourself in those things is the only way to begin to appreciate what’s before you.
It’s just movies, some people say. A lot of people say. And for those some, or lot, that’s all they’ll ever be. But these stories have creators, and the best of these stories reach for and realize moments of truth and power and quality, of overwhelming Goodness. To pretend they don’t — or worse, to say it’s all the same — is ignorance.

The Medium Is The Message

After a few months of strategically released clips that ran no more than seconds, the first full official trailer for New Moon, sequel to last year’s Twilight, has been released. (I believe the full title for the film is actually The Twilight Saga: New Moon, a retroactive decision born of a desire to brand each chapter in the film series with the word “Twilight,” itself a canny but vaguely soulless move I just don’t want to get into here; suffice it to say that there’s a reason franchises reuse phrases like “Pirates of the Caribbean” before their subtitle, and it’s really all about eliciting a knee-jerk response from viewers. It’s also stomach-churning, a little.)
Anyway: The new film arrives in theaters in November, and the trailer — viewable here for the morbidly curious or unbelieving — is notable because it’s nothing at all like a normal trailer. At all. Most trailers, though they can vary when it comes to how much of the plot they give away or what kind of vibe they’re going for or even how closely their atmosphere accurately reflects the film they’re selling, follow a basic pattern: Scenes and dialogue from the film are edited to create a heightened, compressed experience. The movie itself is used as its own greatest selling point.
But the New Moon trailer, though it features footage from the film, largely relies on an interview with star Taylor Lautner in which he discusses the way the new film differs from its predecessor, with shots from the film sprinkled between interview chunks and Lautner’s voice-over covering the whole thing. This is weird, and telling, and depressing for what it says about the movies, their target audience, and what each expects from the other.
Even eagerly awaited movies are trumpeted with trailers designed to ramp up excitement. Think of the first trailers for Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace or The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (the latter even had a teaser for the whole trilogy). Those were tentpole releases with huge audiences built right in — Star Wars is kind of one of those inescapable American pop cultural touchtones, and Tolkien fans are avid and many — but the trailers still did their best to hype those audiences up even further, as well as create engaging, fleeting looks at the upcoming films that were meant both to fan the flames of those already disposed to see the films and to win over anybody else.
But the New Moon trailer is just a sloppy collection of clips that don’t even attempt to reconstruct the plot of the first film or the new one, instead relying on the puff quotes of a co-star to plug the new release as if this is a featurette on a DVD or a sneak peak on MTV instead of a brand new trailer for the second installment in a wildly successful book and film series. It’s revealing that the trailer doesn’t even try to pretend the movie is about anything other than its own existence, e.g., there’s no reason to see the movie except to satisfy an artificially created desire. There’s no effort to provide any kind of narrative hook. The movie just is. Period.
And that says a lot about the intended audience for the trailer, books, and movies, a group of consumers that’s largely female and in their early teens. They don’t seem to want anything more from the franchise than for it to continue to exist as a flimsily constructed soap opera; the fact that there’s more faux-revealing sound bites from an actor than actual character dialogue in the trailer just underscores the fact that this audience, for this product, is as undiscerning as possible. They ask nothing more than for the shoddy books to be quickly make into cheap films, and it’s no surprise that Summit Entertainment isn’t interested in doing anything with the property except to cobble together a cheap 100-second preview built around one of the actors saying the movie is really good.
Typically, trailers are selling a story tied to an experience: They offer an exciting new world but package it like the very act of going to the theater will be life-changing. The New Moon clip is eye-opening because it’s all about the experience. There’s no semblance of story, no attempt to look like a legitimate film, and no effort to do anything but remind young girls to get ready to spend their parents’ money again in November. Most trailers are just fragments of a larger story, but the one for New Moon manages to sum up the whole sorry, vapid, uncaring franchise. Seeing this is like seeing everything else, only mercifully shorter.

Smart People

One of the easiest bombs to lob as a professional critic is to demean a film or TV series as “manipulative.” This is also one of the most misleading and unthinking ways to attack a work of art. One of the goals of a good story is to evoke emotion, to stir up in the viewer feelings of joy or sorrow or empathy or any one of ten thousand; the fictional narrative is constructed specifically to manipulate you into that state. What we really mean when we call something manipulative is that it is falsely manipulative, i.e., the situations that unfolded to arrive at the given conflict or resolution felt forced, or cheap, or predictable, or dumb, or in any way unbelievable. Good storytelling makes the scripted feel surprising, and it makes the inevitable feel crafted by fate.
This came home as I rewatched the latter half of the second season of “The West Wing” recently. It’s revealed in the first season that President Bartlet suffers from a relapsing-remitting course of multiple sclerosis, but the disease is kept secret from the staff and the world at large. The second season of the show becomes increasingly about Bartlet’s decision to run for re-election, which would break a promise he made to his wife out of deference to his illness to limit himself to one term, but creator and writer Aaron Sorkin isn’t about to make Bartlet’s m.s. some clunky weight around the neck of a great story. In other words, though the disclosure of the disease to the public is unavoidable and destined to become an important part of the re-election arc and the rest of the series, Sorkin isn’t going to employ some sitcom-level hijinks in which Bartlet’s yakking about his m.s. treatments on the phone when some aide accidentally picks up the extension and hears all about it. To have the revelation come out that way would feel arbitrary and stupid and unoriginal, and it would feel that way because (a) it would be all those things, and worse, but also (b) that would rob the viewer of seeing a realistic, natural story play out among a stable of smart characters. No, Sorkin does the best and only available thing: He has someone figure out the secret.
It’s impossible to understate just how vital this is to the integrity of the series, the characters, and the viewing experience. Sorkin’s political drama moved fast and quick, running on adrenaline and wit and pure unfiltered hope. (For more of my gushing over the show’s second season, click here.) It was a smart show about smart people, and to have such a major plot development left to less graceful devices would’ve been out of place. What’s more, these characters had spent two seasons proving their worth, devotion, and intellect, and there could be no better way to honor that than to have one of them — communications director Toby Ziegler — discover the president’s secret by just sitting in his office and thinking about the various clues (the president’s reluctance to discuss re-election, the vice president’s posturing) scattered around him. Toby blasts the president for his behavior, but coming as it does on the heels of his discovery, it doesn’t play out so much like self-righteous thundering as it does legitimate anger. The show is honest to its emotions, and that’s what makes it such worthwhile viewing. Any series can be a soap, but it takes real skill to make something this intelligent and nimble and captivating. And smart.

They All Adore Him. They Think He’s A Righteous Dude.

The death of John Hughes at age 59 is a sad passing, an occasion to once again show some love and respect for a writer-director whose core group of films in the 1980s became enduring classics of youth. But the most notable thing about Hughes’ departure is that people aren’t expressing their love of his work as if they’ve rediscovered it after a long haitus; no, they — we, I — have loved these movies all along. Hughes’ death is not a chance to look at old films but to look at the films that are still with us. That’s an important distinction, and one that could only happen now.

Two separate appreciations of Hughes’ work published in the wake of his death have been written from the point of view of an author who lived through the Hughesian era the first time around; in other words, of someone who was actually a teenager when Hughes was defining teen culture on screen. What’s more, both pieces use a similar construction to pin down what they feel to be Hughes’ target demographic. From A.O. Scott’s wonderful write-up in The New York Times:

Especially for those of us born between the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Bicentennial, the phrase “a John Hughes movie” will instantly conjure a range of images and associations …

And from Dana Stevens’ piece at Slate:

John Hughes movies — the good ones, those five or six gems he wrote and directed in the mid-to-late ’80s, before he stopped directing altogether and became a producer and writer of hack comedies — persist in the collective memory of a certain demographic (say, anyone born between the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate hearings) as foundational texts of adolescence.

Scott and Stevens make their case for Hughes’ impact based on arbitrary but not necessarily nonsensical birthdate bookends: Scott’s runs from August 1964 to July 1976, while Stevens’ covers November 1963 to May 1973. They’re shooting for people who would have been 20 years old or younger when Sixteen Candles was released in May 1984, a group of people whose teen years mostly coincided with Hughes’ phenomenal mid-decade cluster of films: The Breakfast Club and Weird Science in 1985, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink in 1986. (He directed all but the latter.) And there’s no doubt that it would have been a wonderful experience to see those films released while you were struggling through the very same hellish stretch of high school that plagued Hughes’ best-remembered heroes and heroines.

But the point is that that’s not necessary. At all. We as a viewing public had the good fortune to get these films as home video was permeating the market, not to mention the eventual airings on movie channels and network television, followed by (often multiple) DVD releases. Thanks to the modern era Hughes chronicled, we don’t have to look back wistfully and say that only teens of the 1980s enjoyed or learned from or loved those movies, or saw in them the same beauties as the first people to buy a ticket the year Reagan was re-elected.

Look: I was 11 years old when Jurassic Park came out in the summer of 1993, and there’s practically no better age to be for that movie, especially if you’re a geeky, hyper-literate boy with a fondness for dinosaurs who had already grown up with E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sometimes the tumblers just line up, and a movie opens when your growing mind is ready for it. But there’s no reason a child today, 16 years later, can’t have the same basic experience. Absent going to the actual theater, an 11-year-old boy of similar disposition can see that film and feel excitement, terror, and amazement similar to what moved me at that age. The availability and distribution of home entertainment guarantee this.

That’s why the pieces about Hughes are right about his impact on a generation but wrong in acting as if he only affected that specific generation. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a huge part of my youth, just as it has been for a lot of people in the past two decades. I identified with the stratified angst of the Breakfast Clubbers as surely as my predecessors had when I was just a baby, regardless of how dated some of the slang had become. (Though to be honest, I doubt that “neo maxi zoom dweebie” was ever a remotely trenchant insult to throw at someone, even in Chicago’s North Shore.) These movies were cultural touchstones for my peers and I as surely as they were for people now in their 30s or 40s. Hughes made comedies with heart designed to last for generations, and they have. And because of the gorgeous ease with which these films can be passed down, I know that teens twenty years from now will feel the same way.

Shades Of Gray

I’ve been rewatching “The Wire” over the past month or so, reflecting on the work as a whole even more than I did my first time through, and I’ve come to realize that one of the show’s many strengths is the way it creates nuanced characters without forfeiting its moral compass. This sounds easy, but it’s incredibly hard to do, and pulling it off requires work.
One of the easiest and most popular ways to describe really well-made movies and TV series is also one of the most misleading. Faced with an army of finely drawn characters, especially on a long-form drama like “The Wire” that plays out over several years, it can be tempting to make a claim along the lines of, “There are no good guys or bad guys.” It’s not that this statement is evil; it’s just that it fundamentally ignores the larger complications of great storytelling and places dangerous limits on the art in question.
That’s because in a great story, there are still good and bad people, but these people occasionally do things at odds with their basic moral make-up. Omar is a bad, vicious man, a killer and thief not often given to remorse, but he feels genuine love in a relationship. Lester Freamon is a good, decent police, but he’s not above burning a political figure for the hell of it. Herc is a brutish and dim officer, but when internal affairs comes calling, he takes the heat for his department and spares two other officers any punishment. Etc., etc., etc.
That’s the glory of nuance, and what turns a good story into a great one. Good and bad aren’t eliminated, but co-exist within a character. Saying that no one in the story is good or evil is wrong-headed, and it’s unfair to just how complicated the fictional world actually is.

Certain Of What We Do Not See

The fake birth certificate pictured above is at the heart of what’s come to be called the “birther” movement, peopled by a loose collection of extremists who dispute President Obama’s citizenship and, thus, the credence of his presidency. It doesn’t matter how many times the idea is proven to be a pointless controversy; adherents of the movement refuse to budge on their claims that Obama is not a natural-born citizen. From a political standpoint, it’s bewildering; from a human standpoint, it’s inane; but viewed as an outgrowth of fundamentalist Christianity, it makes perfect sense.
Fundamentalists have a strong respect for standing your ground and for placing your hope and reasoning in a higher and often unseen calling; that’s the essence of faith, and left unsullied by the world, it can be a very good thing. This is why so many evangelicals flocked to George W. Bush and stood by him through the sub-Nixonian end; political orientation aside, when a guy says the most influential figure in his life has been Jesus Christ and speaks loftily of a return to forgotten family values, these people will stick by him out of respect for his faith and out of the belief that he’s a good man regardless of demonstrable successes. More than that: Faith calls followers to trust in the unseen, meaning Bush could be a public failure but still be considered a spiritual success because of the immeasurable and unmeasurable ways in which he has adhered to the cause. It doesn’t matter that a man who campaigned on his submission to Christ’s teachings would eventually organize and sanction the torture and execution of other souls that messiah died to save, or even that Bush’s followers never called him on the dichotomy. In a sick twist on the writings of James, these people demanded only faith, not its attendant works.
That’s why the existence of the birthers, especially among more extreme-right groups that tend to be more fundamentalist or evangelical, makes perfect sense. They don’t want evidence of Obama’s citizenship, which is why they’ve ignored it every time it’s given to them. They are committed to a cause not out of politics — at least, that’s what they’ll tell themselves — but out of a slavish devotion to a cause whose persecution by the unwashed and reliance on things not seen becomes a dark parallel of their Christian faith. They have created what they believe to be the truth, and nothing will dissuade them from it. That makes them deluded, yes, but also the worst kind of dangerous. They cannot be talked down, and they will not be reasoned out of their position. They wouldn’t even see it as reason, but misleading propaganda.
For a more pointed political perspective on the birthers, here’s Bill Maher. He’s usually way too smug for his own good — he seems to have forgotten that reason and intellect are better suited to a balanced tone than condescending scorn — but he blasts the birthers in this clip and discusses the dangers of letting such groups get away with too much. I agree with him: