21 August 2015

Quickie Review: INFINITELY POLAR BEAR (2014)

Slices of director Maya Forbes’ life growing up with a mentally ill father. Thankfully, Forbes does without with the typical “Act II breakdown” you see in most other films with mentally ill character. And it dispenses with the idea that mental illness is something delightfully quirky up until the point where everything collapses beyond repair. In POLAR BEAR, Mark Ruffalo’s bipolar disorder is pervasive, with good moments and bad moments, often occurring in the course of a single day. By the end of the film we get, as we sometimes do in life if we’re lucky, a brief respite from those ups and downs even as we know the next set will inevitably come.

We also get to see how privilege can mitigate some of the worst social and economical circumstances. The Blue blood background of Ruffalo’s character absolutely is NOT his family’s salvation from its problems, something that we might see in a different film. It’s not particularly the cause of his problems either, even if it exacerbates them in a couple of instances. But it is shown (uncritically, which I think is okay since it’s not really the point of this movie) as the safety net that it is.

I’m used to films and TV shows where mixed race families always seem to be fixed in a certain specifically defined socioeconomic status (usually one extreme or the other), and dealing with (or not) a certain set of racial issues – that is to say, families of caricatures. Here, we see a mixed race family in the ’70s presented in a very complex way, i.e. like real people. Forbes gives us the sense that if this particular White trust fund kid marrying Zoe Zaldana was ever an issue to the elderly Blue blood matriarch holding the purse strings, it'd been resolved enough that it needn't have been brought up in this particular story. Which, even in the pre-Post-Racial 1970s, was something not entirely unheard of. Okay granted, maybe in the same way it was "not unheard of" for campers to encounter something big and hairy in the woods in the ’70s but still. I like the fact that Forbes doesn't lazily caricature Blue bloods, either.

What DOES matter to the Blue blood matriarch is Zaldana’s plan to advance herself to become a better breadwinner by temporarily abandoning her family to go to Columbia. Forbes never glosses over the fact that we’re talking about a Black woman here, but she does focus more on the problems of the traditional gender role. And while you might not like that choice – much like you can theoretically take filmmaker Anthony Chen to task for not being all that critical of the treatment of Overseas Filipino Workers in his 2013 work ILO ILO – you can only fault this filmmaker to the extent that you don't buy that she's painted an accurate picture of her life, more or less as she lived it.

17 August 2015

Markdown, Model Hit Pieces, Black Power Tarot

Trying something new this time around by throwing Markdown, StackEdit, and Blogger. Had to cram stuff into the HTML of this template and take a crash course in YAML, so this will either look perfect or weird. Apologies in advance if you get this via RSS and it looks funny. Though supposedly, no one uses RSS anymore so maybe no one’ll notice.

MARKDOWN: I’ve cobbled together a good number of my last few posts in Markdown format, in one text editor or another (gedit, right now). Actually over the past few months, I’ve been using Markdown for drafts of damn near everything–dayjob reports, short story notes, project lists–everything! What I love most is how the raw output is human readable, so for the most part I leave it as is. This post will be the first time my Markdown text will be run through an editor instead of formatted the hard way. If you’re reading this, I guess it works…(?)

MODEL HIT PIECES: I agree in principle with this piece on The Concourse that some of David Brooks’ recent writing seems indicative of someone having a lot of trouble adapting to the way things are enough to WRITE about how they are, and choosing instead to stay fixated on how things “should” be” or, worse, “used to be.” I’ve noticed that trend in his work too, which I’ve followed semi-regularly since BOBOS IN PARADISE. It’s more evident in his columns than it is in his weekly stints on the PBS NEWSHOUR which I DO follow regularly, but it’s crept in there a bit, too. And yes, when I read what he said about Te-Nehisi Coates and his book, I threw up in my mouth a little. But the thing is, I read this Concourse article and was a bit awestruck that such a mean-spirited hit piece could be so relatively well researched. I mean, I’m ALL for critical takedowns of, well, just about anybody. And I’m not above kicking to the testicles to win a fight. But I like to think even I’d have the decency to move on to the joints, the face, maybe the throat, or other soft targets while my opponent’s down, rather than continually stomping him in the nuts.

BLACK POWER TAROT: Say what you want about Alejandro Jodorowsky, but he does keep involving himself in some interesting shit like this…
It’s hard to resist any project that involves a tarot Tina Turner and surrealist filmmaking legend Alejandro Jodorowsky. And so we present the Black Power Tarot, a deck of tarot cards illustrated by Belfast-based graphic designer Michael Eaton. The deck is based on the Tarot De Marseille but is made up of black musicians, comedians, activists and people of note, and was created by the musician King Khan. In a rather incredible twist, the project was overseen by Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose son is friends with King Khan. Big names aside, the pack is a triumph, showing an illustration sensibility that works superbly for its purpose with striking colours and defined line work. And of course, there’s Tina Turner prizing open a lion’s mouth – an image we had no idea we needed to see, but one that’s made our day infinitely more enjoyable.
(via, h/t Damien Williams)

ETA: Markdown/StackEdit/Blogger experiment result: I'd call this first trial a success, with a couple of bugs to work out.

20 July 2015

Quickie Review: AMY (2015)

Whenever I watch films about artists with issues or peccadilloes (cf. JODOROWSKY'S DUNE, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, LOVE & MERCY, et al.), I get this naive idea in my head that, "Of course, I don't want to be as fucked up as that artist, but if I could just dip my toe into that pool of mad genius...." I think, "I have my dysfunctions too. But if I can somehow learn to leverage them somehow while keeping them dialed back just enough so I don't implode, well then I can be brilliant without the train wreck, right?" Of course, the difference is that if I try, and then inevitably crash and burn, it would just be a clear case of pride going before a fall. When it comes to real artists and truly troubled artists, it's not a strategy. It's a very precarious way of life.

I only knew the basic facts about Amy Winehouse before I saw this documentary. First was that Voice. I'd heard it back in the day, and knew instantly what Tony Bennett knew instantly. I wasn't surprised that it came to endear her to fans and musicians alike, from the up-and-coming-at-the-time Daptone Records stable to Bennett himself. She was brilliant and I never questioned that. And of course, I knew about the spiral. Not the details, you understand. You see enough star meltdowns, and its easy to think we've seen it all before. "[So-and-So] found dead after a long period of [insert issue here], wash, rinse, repeat, next case."

This documentary doesn't really provide much in the way of missing pieces that lead us to a better understanding of Winehouse's trials and tribulations, or even necessarily to increased sympathy. I don't see AMY changing anyone's opinions, for better or for worse. But I did learn a few new things. I learned how well documented life was in her circle. Because that's just how the kids do things nowadays. I learned how soulful and penetrating her lyrics are. I had no idea. Luckily, the film literally spells them out for you. If Bennett likens her vocal chops to Billie Holliday's, then her songwriting rates at least as highly as Cole Porter's. And I definitely didn't realize -- if one accepts the film's narrative, and I have no reason not to -- how many times Winehouse came so close to pulling herself up out of the spiral. That's the saddest part, to me.

Not that she didn't make her bad choices. But trapped as she was in the petri dish that is the music business, constantly under a media microscope, having started out with a life that came close to being as tortured as that of any other troubled artist you could name, what choices did she really have?