Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Unintentionally Hilarious Dialogue

"In the real world, when you kill people, they die ... for real!"

-Ryan Phillippe, in the climatic scene of Antitrust

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Zen and the Art of Kramer

"It's like a sauna in here."
-Cosmo Kramer, said while sitting in a sauna

I like watching Seinfeld, because it's both funny as hell and as precise a catalogue of human pettiness and self-absorption as has ever been created for television. Though we may laugh at the behavior of the characters, the terrain they travel is familiar, though exaggerated, from our own lives.

There's one character, though, who has always fascinated me more than the others, and that's the wacky neighbor to put all other wacky neighbors to shame, that "hipster doofus" Cosmo Kramer.

It's not his tower of hair, or way with the ladies, or his never-quite-revealed source of income that fascinates me. It's his near-perfect alignment with eastern philosophy. The more I watch Seinfeld, the more I realize that Kramer is perhaps the greatest embodiment of zen Buddhism in American television history.

No kidding.

As George, Elaine and Jerry are endlessly wrapped up in the meaningless trivia of their own lives, Kramer is merely living his, free in the moment, with barely any concern for what has happened in the past or what might occur in the future.

In "The Marine Biologist," the other three characters are, as usual, obsessing over their own lives. Jerry makes up a lie, telling a woman that George is a marine biologist; George, too insecure and locked inside his own life, extends the lie, leading to a disastrous and hilarious denouncement.

What's Kramer worried about in the episode? As usual, he isn't worried about anything. His primary enthusiasm is a momentary impulse to drive golf balls into the ocean. Buddhist monks probably wouldn't appreciate the casual insult to nature, but they might appreciate the zen nature of a game of golf that has no scorecard, no rules and no rewards other than the momentary pleasure of driving a small white ball into a huge, profound ocean.

That's the way it is with Kramer. He pours himself with true focus and joy into the task at hand, no matter how small. When asked to "play" a patient for medical students, he turns it into a full-blown performance, complete with a self-authored monologue. When he finds a screen door to put onto his doorway -- which leads to a narrow hall -- he turns it into a piece of Americana, adding a barbecue and, improbably, attracting neighborhood kids and errant baseballs.

Kramer may be present in the present, but, unlike the other characters, he doesn't obsess needlessly over the past or future. Unlike Jerry, George or Elaine, he seems to harbor few grudges; nor does he seemed concerned about the future. George, engaged to one woman, obsessed over what could be with another -- although, to be fair, the other woman in this case is Marisa Tomei. What might have been doesn't concern Kramer. When his schemes fail, and they almost always do, he just moves on, casually and almost seamlessly, to the next one.

Kramer's not free of the pettiness and jealousy that afflict the other characters in Seinfeld, but, unlike them, he approaches most of the moments of his life with joy instead of dread, enthusiasm instead of evasion.

We could learn a lot from that hipster doofus.

Monday, December 10, 2007

More Humor

"Just like a wop to bring a knife to a gunfight."

-Sean Connery, The Untouchables

Other Things Proven Ineffective in Gunfights

1) A board with a nail in it.

2) A gun (unloaded)

3) A treasured, dog-earned copy of "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."

4) That homemade bulletproof vest.

5) The French.

6) Bullet-dodging skills learned from "The Matrix" trilogy.

7) Sporks.


Saturday, December 8, 2007

Curiosity and American politics

I read a lot of books on American history. My theory is that someday I will meet a supermodel, and when I do, I will wow her with my knowledge of who the ambassador from Spain was during the first administration of Thomas Jefferson. (Don Carlos Martinez de Yrujo. That's right, baby. You like that, don't you?)

Additionally, I enjoy reading history because I like learning about the people who shaped the idea of America, what their ideas and quirks and passions were. The people who invented the idea of America were a bunch of weirdos: a general who proved unsuccessful at winning all that many battles, a stern, devout schoolteacher; a long-winded inventor who wrote perhaps the greatest document for freedom; a born out-of-wedlock-financial genius who was known as an unstoppable ladies' man.

And I haven't even mentioned Aaron Burr. Aaron Burr shot a dude.

Lately I've been working my way through Edmund Morris' two-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, which is fascinating, both because of Roosevelt is so compelling as a subject and because Morris is so successful in breathing life into him.

Roosevelt was a skilled and extensively published author, an insightful historian, a noted naturalist, an accomplished soldier and the police chief of New York. Roosevelt is also an illustration of something I think is missing in politics these days: intellectual curiosity.

Almost all of the early leaders of this country were intellectually curious, from Jefferson, whose writings are a catalogue of thoughts on science, nature, other cultures and books; to Roosevelt, who had a passionate interest in ornithology, which today would earn him sharpened barbs on cable-TV newscasts for being a sissy bird-boy.

I think one of the things wrong with national politics these days is that intellectual curiosity, which once seemed a requirement for our leaders, has been dulled by the demands of the office.

This curiosity, when followed, teaches you the importance of nuance, open-mindedness and context. Our modern political system, and the media that covers it, are hostile to those qualities.

If you address the issues that face our country with nuance, you're flattened by the slogans of your opponent, who would bomb, attack or ban whatever problem it is that faces us. If you listen to your opponents with open-mindedness, you are jeered for siding with the 'loony left' or 'wingnuts.' And if you attempt to place a problem in context, you seem weak compared to your opponents, who treat every issue as if it's a threat to the foundation of the country.

The media doesn't help matters. Although there are several reporters and outlets that examine issues closely, most of the attention is usually drawn to the loudest, the shrillest and the most flamboyant. A punchline gets more attention than a well-reasoned argument.

As the politicians are forced -- by the media, by the voters, by each other -- to make their arguments blunter, their ideas become blunter and more unwieldy. Eventually, they become too crude for the problems they were developed to treat.

I'm not trying to imply that politicians from the powdered-wig days were perfect or all-knowing. They were biased. They were short-sighted. They were flawed men and made flawed decisions. But many of them pursued knowledge for its own sake, from Lincoln reading borrowed books by candlelight to Roosevelt's careful recording of plants and animals he saw. Those effort speaks to a man or woman who will treat complex problems with the complex solutions they deserve.

We need more people like that. When we find them, we need to vote for them.


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Overlooked Performances

In a recent issue of Esquire, a reader wrote in to suggest that every year, the Academy Awards recognize one previously unrecognized performance. I think that's a fantastic idea. In fact, I'm not going to wait for the voters and make a few recommendations myself.

Derek Luke in Friday Night Lights. Luke was almost 30 when he signed on to play Boobie Miles, a high-school football star who suffers a devastating knee injury. With that in mind, I found Luke's performance more than uncanny; it's practically supernatural. From his lanky frame to his cocky demeanor, it seems as if Miles is a living, breathing teenager whom the filmmakers found hanging out at a nearby football field. From the way Luke talks to the way his simmering rage boils over in one late scene, it's an astonishing performance in a film that's filled with good ones.

Catherine Keener in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. This film made Steve Carell a star, sent the Judd Apatow rocket into orbit and prepared Seth Rogan for deserved comic stardom. But it's Keener's grounded presence that binds it together. While the other characters are allowed to be zany, she takes her relatively staid character and turns in a finely detailed portrait. You can sense her character's eagerness and nervousness, her worries about the future and, yes, eagerness for sex as she embarks on a relationship with Carell's Andy Stitzer. The scene where she argues with her daughter, detailing a mother's confusion and frustration and maybe a hint of bemusement, is as well-etched as you'll see in a mainstream drama.

Chiwetel Ejiofer in Four Brothers. I'm going to be straight-up with you, yo: This movie stinks. It's silly, difficult to believe and has scenes that will make your skin try to crawl off your body in pure embarrassment. But Ejiofer, who went on to piece together a run of good performances in films including "Serenity," turns in a fun, flamboyant turn that seems like something out of a better movie. He appears relatively late in the action and doesn't have many scenes, but registers enough bluster and charisma to pick the movie up, put it in his pocket and walk way with it.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary. Gyllenhaal turns in a well-tuned performance in this story of a troubled secretary who discovers that she enjoys being spanked and otherwise dominated by her boss (James Spader). The filmmakers chose to make the film a cheerful romance, rather than the creepy kinkfest its synopsis would imply, and Gyllenhaal's sunny, sharp performance adds to the vibe. Watching her character blossom with newfound confidence is a joyous experience.

George Clooney in Intolerable Cruelty. Clooney has been pulling a lot of Hollywood's moral freight lately with Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana and Michael Clayton. By contrast, Intolerable Cruelty is a screwball comedy, and he flourishes in it, playing a vain, bored divorce attorney without a hint of self-consciousness or vanity as a performer. He masters the screwball comedy's verbal gymnastics, and his facial expressions, which frequently display double takes worthy of a cartoon character, are great.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Comebacks That Weren't Worth It

I occasionally write humor pieces. I've tried to get them published, with no takers so far. (The secretary at "Cat Fancy" just hangs up now when she hears my voice.)

Here's one.

Comebacks that probably weren't worth saying

1) "You call that a kick to the groin?"

2) "Well at least I have an R2D2 costume!"

3) "Go ahead and keep her. I think you’ll find her seemingly endless wealth and constant desire for sex wears thin in four to five years."

4) "You call that a second, even more painful kick to the groin?"

5) "Yeah? You and what army?" (Said to Kim-Jong-II)

6) "I love you, too."

Transformers and the Art of the Blockbuster

So I saw Transformers the other day.

It was bad.

Really bad.

So bad that I felt it unfair to compare it to other movies, and instead began comparing it to medical conditions.

Don't get me wrong, it's clearly not as bad as, say, shingles or scurvy or anything like that. But would I rather watch Transformers again or bang my shin really hard against the corner of my desk? I'd have to think about that one. Or, would I rather watch Transformers again or get a painful but curable case of hemorrhoids? Again I'd have to consider it.

The list of reasons that Transformers is bad is long and varied, from its overly broad characters to its constant attempts at corny humor. (In one scene, a character gazes upon a vehicle that has just transformed itself into a robot, which you would think would be a soul-shaking, awe-inspiring event. Instead of responding as any actual human would, the character turns to someone next to him and says that the transformer "must be Japanese." Hey, Michael Bay: 1989 called. It wants its jokes back.)

Instead of making me depressed, though, the badness of Transformers kind of encouraged me. Lifted my spirit, even. Why? Because it reflected the new, elevated expectations of the American blockbuster.

Many movie geeks I know like to rip on blockbusters, and to be fair, a lot of the big-budget Hollywood film in recent years have been pretty lousy. But I would also argue that we're in the middle of a pretty good stretch of blockbusters. It may not be a golden age, but it's kinda a silver age, with big-budget movies showing wit, style and craft that goes beyond their eagerness to entertain.

Need proof? How about the first two X-Men movies, which marry excellent effects with interesting and well-crafted characters? How about The Incredibles, where a film zippy enough for the kids is also witty and smart enough for the adults?

Need more proof? That's pretty cheeky, since this is my freakin' blog, but I'll give you proof anyway: How about the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which is big-budget, swashbuckling entertainment that will make your heart bump around in your chest like a bird trying to get the hell out of a cage?

That kind of quality is what make films like Transformers seem more crummy than they actually are. Big budgets, flashy special effects and the presence of stars, which can be a crutch for some films are now avenues for canny filmmakers to bring craft to the masses. And I hope you appreciate the trend as I do.