Thursday, July 29, 2010

Journal 7.29.10


Thinking about the movie Tristram Shandy (A Cock And Bull Story) which I saw last night.  A darling of the humor cognoscenti, Steve Coogan, the movie’s star, has never done that much for me.  The Alan Partridge Show especially (the chief vehicle of his fame) I found obvious and mean.  But I in general dislike the new trend toward humor of embarrassment, the cringe-inducing Borat stuff.  (To me The Office, e.g, is at best 50% unwatchable.  I fast forward through all of Steve Carrell’s tedious mugging). 

Tristram Shandy, however, turned out to be excellent.  Realizing the book is both too large and various to readily submit to adaptation, the producers aimed instead for a translation.  The movie is a thing unto itself, but one related in aim and method to the book.  So, for example, thirty minutes in, the “movie” of the book (characters in eighteenth century garb acting out the story of the novel) essentially stops.  From then on, focus switches to the actors.  Their story dominates.  Coogan, the director, and the producers worry about how the film should end; they try to drum up money for a large-scale battle; debate the merits of doing a battle; consider having a love interest (eventually bringing in Gillian Anderson).  Coogan’s girlfriend shows up with their infant son and fatherhood—a big theme of the novel—is gone into.  Just as the book in many ways ends up a book about a book, so too the movie is movie about making movies.

It all sounds wearingly ‘post-modern,’ I know, but like the book, the movie’s disassembled, self-referential, endlessly digressive nature feels necessary--even exciting.  Both in their way try to tell a coherent story.  They aim towards meaning—they just can’t get there.  So, in the book, the world is too expansive, too chaotic, for Sterne to contain it within one story.  Thus the endless stops and restarts, the metastasizing plots—everything has to be fit in.  Every story needs another twenty to explain it.  But in all this excess, there’s joy, richness, a sense of overabundance, which keeps the reader more or less content.  (Not all readers.  Samuel Johnson famously hated it).  A ninety-minute can’t approach that same abundance, so humor becomes their approximation of joy.  And it is, generally, very funny (though in a dark dry British way).  Coogan, like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, plays a caraicature of himself.   Vain, selfish and petty, he hovers on the edge of complete jerk-iness for most of the movie.  All sorts of excellent minor roles, as well—the aforementioned assistant, the simultaneously insecure and patronizing second lead (Uncle Toby), and, my favorite, a historical expert brought in to advise the crew on how to stage the battle of Namur, a shaggy gentle man whose rumpled sheepdog look belies a ferocious contempt for the tendency in modern film to get the details of their battles wrong.  (Cold Mountain comes in for some great savaging.)

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Slowing down on Vineland, another post-mod hallmark, though one whose digressions feel much less necessary.  Now deep into the backstory of a secondary character, which is both unfunny and tedious.  Interesting that in Vineland as in Lot 49 the central figure is a woman.  Not sure how well either’s ‘femaleness’ is rendered (having no way to compare) but my sense is: not very well.  Zoyd is by far the most interesting figure in Vineland.  What’s NOT that interesting is the super familiar badass female ninja woman, DL.  What is it with adolescent-ish men and ass-kicking women?  (Tarantino, Joss Wheeden, whoever writes all of Angelina Jolie’s crap-ass stuff….)  As soon as you start to build a story around the ability of someone to administer instant death via touch, you’re done.  Or so I feels….

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To limit: my use of the word ‘interesting.’  One of the emptiest the language provides….

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Two TV shows that have become almost unwatchable: Entourage and So You Think You Can Dance.  The former has exhausted itself of stories; I think its time is up.  The latter has merely made terrible choices this season, both in its contestants and its format.  The cast now is filled with craftsmen but devoid of artists.  Everybody's young and bland, and their inabilities only register more sharply in proximity to the All-Stars.  Dispiriting stuff. 

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