Tag Archives: Woody Allen

Taming the Rage Monster

hulk

The Troggs had it wrong:  love is not all around, rage is.  At least that’s what it seems when dialing into any form of media of late.  We’re a perpetual powder keg, frothing at our keyboards to spew a storm of digitized incendiary rhetoric into the nearest available outlet given the merest hint of provocation.  It’s about as ludicrous as that old Simpsons gag where a guy taps another on the shoulder and says “Hey you, let’s fight,” and the other replies “Them’s fightin’ words” and takes a swing at him.  We seem to be spoiling for it in our interactions, seeking out opinions (or venturing them) designed to raise blood pressures and elicit profanities and threats of bodily harm.  And yet it’s not as though you’re seeing fistfights break out in shopping malls on a regular basis, or a global “Red Hour” – if you remember the Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons” – where the collective agrees on a time and place where they may just as collectively lose their shit.  Day-to-day society proceeds apace, unencumbered by the simmering monster apparently lurking under everyone’s skin ready to Hulk out at the slightest shift in the breeze.

Why are we so angry all the time?  One of the most intriguing arguments is that popular culture, the glamorization of “fame” and the gradual dumbing-down of the education system are to blame for creating a perpetual sense of false expectations amidst the great majority of the world’s population who are fated to live quiet and largely unrecognized lives (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Our concepts of “success” and “failure” have been altered to a state where they barely resemble the truth of what they once were.  We’ve seen failure removed almost entirely from schools lest the fragile feelings of the precious snowflakes inside be hurt.  (As a parent, I don’t mind when my kid flunks a test, because I’d rather he learn that he needs to try much harder to pass rather than know that no matter how little effort he puts in, he’ll always get by.)  Consequently you have a generation of children believing for the first eighteen years of their lives that they are perfect and infallible, and when adulthood arrives and they don’t ace that first job interview, or they come up against any task that is beyond them, they implode, as reliably as a calculator attempting to divide by zero.  Failure does not compute.

Success, on the other hand, is defined again and again, in a manner resembling brainwashing, in terms frankly unachievable by 99.9999999% percent of the population:  seven-figure salaries, a constant stream of supermodel companions, jetting to the Riviera for the weekend to win the Formula One while top-lining the latest blockbuster action movie.  You are invited constantly to compare the dregs of your life with the riches and wonders of the lucky few and find yourself forever wanting, while being indoctrinated with the lie that the only thing you need is belief in your dreams (that doesn’t hurt, but it is most definitely NOT the only ingredient).  How many people were in that record-retweeted Oscar selfie, versus how many millions more were only wishing that they could have been standing to Bradley Cooper’s right?  Is it realistic to think that we can all be movie stars and sports heroes and retire to Malibu mansions overlooking the sea?  Yet ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up and the number one answer is “famous.”  The purveyors of celebrity gossip have become rich themselves convincing the rest of us that we’re just a happenstance discovery away from the big time.  We don’t actually have to do anything to merit it; we’re owed it.

Yet that golden ticket is not going to arrive, and millions grow increasingly impatient for it.  And to paraphrase Yoda, impatience turns to anger, anger turns to hate.

Once again, the boys seem to be the greater offenders here.  Given that we are prone to insecurity as it is and the media’s far-fetched depiction of what constitutes “manhood,” it is unsurprising to see that fireball into unrestrained fury.  I was made aware of a hashtag that circulated Twitter a few days ago, that blissfully I missed out on, #LiesToldByFemales.  Basically, a venue for a cabal of misogynists (who would not dare say any of these things to a real-life woman, naturally) to whine about the endless ways women had done them wrong, either in actual fact or perception (I chance to assume the latter).  It hearkens back to the redefinition of a successful relationship for a man by countless movies, music videos and men’s magazine articles as:  scoring a smokin’ hot chick who will do whatever he wants and subsume her will and personality to his desires, only as long as he deigns to keep her around.  A prurient fantasy, which of course does not exist in the real world, but doesn’t stop men from wanting it anyway.  They’re entitled to it, the magazines have told them, and the movies have shown, in any number of stories where the beautiful goddess eventually succumbs to the persistent charms of the unwashed, inadequate nerd.  Fade to credits before the inevitable consequences of such an ill-gotten romance take hold.  But no matter, the lie has been pre-packaged and sold, and the men who fail to replicate it in their own lives have a perfect justification to assist in brewing their lifelong resentment of reality.  The perceived “safety” of anonymous online posting of same then entitles them to let it out, so the like-minded can holler “Right on!” and retweet and feel vindicated for harboring the same sentiments.  Regardless of how much damage it may do – and how little in fact their lives will change for the better.

That’s the saddest part of this.  Where is all the rage getting us?  You have a tremendous irony in that profound dissatisfaction with the status quo has fired some of the most expansive changes in our history, and yet, 21st Century rage is an end unto itself.  We are furious, yet benumbed.  We’re not starting riots in malls.  It is enough now to be angry for the sake of being angry, to make a few heated comments on a message board, and go back to the drudgery of the day.  We’re addicted to indignation, seeking it out like junkies who can’t abide the space between the highs.  The result?  A climate where everyone is on edge at every moment of the day, a perpetual chill where many are afraid to speak up because it’s like lighting a match to see how much gas is left in the tank.  Reading highlights from the CPAC conference (for the enviably uninitiated, it’s an annual gripe-fest for conservative politicians and celebrities to blame the world’s woes on liberals and their Kenyan Islamofascisocialist president) I can’t help but be reminded of Woody Allen’s character in the 1967 Casino Royale, whose master plan was to detonate a bomb that would render all women beautiful while simultaneously killing all men over four-foot-eleven.  I don’t know what pipe dream of a regulation-free, rootin’-gun-totin’ right-wing utopia where anyone with less than a billion bucks in the bank is deported to Mexico drives these folks, but they seem awfully pissed off that they don’t have it, and that they’re getting no closer to it no matter how many veins they burst in their forehead while they rail about Benghazi at the podium.  Sponsors are raking in advertising revenue from the anger that Fox News foments, but those in whom it is fomented are no further ahead.  In fact, the stress they’re accumulating is shortening the remaining days they have to get angry in.

So much misdirected energy out there.  Just imagine what we could do with it if we could find a way to direct it somewhere else.

As always, dear reader, the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.  So we need to take a page from the Serenity Prayer – accept the things we cannot change.  We need to let go of this idea that we have a divine right to sit at Brangelina’s table, and that Gisele Bündchen only stays married to Tom Brady because she hasn’t met us yet.  We need to cement in our minds the idea that a relationship with a real person is infinitely more rewarding than empty fantasies about surgically-sculpted, spray-tanned hot bods.  We need to stop thinking that we deserve jobs, fortunes or even people that we haven’t gone out and earned.  We need to remember Captain Picard’s one-time advice to Data:  “It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose.  That is not a failing; that is life.”  So yes, we need to accept that by virtue of birth, talent or plain old dumb luck there will always be those individuals who have things better than we do, and that choosing to resent them for having it is truly like that old saw about drinking poison (or ingesting gamma radiation) and expecting the other person to die.  They won’t, no matter how many times we swear on Twitter about it.

What if we tried living life to our own standards instead of what is foisted on us by marketing reps who are trying to sell us things?  If we were able to take the energy misspent on rage and resentment, pull it out of those bottomless pits and refocus it like a laser in furtherance of working on ourselves and our lives, we’d find the reasons for those feelings diminished.  We wouldn’t envy Tom Brady because we’d know what an incredible partner we have standing right next to us and holding our hand at each step.  We would not need to be on movie screens entertaining anonymous masses because the people we know, closest to us, would never question how much we value them.  We would find ourselves replenished with accomplishment and joy – the kind of deep inner assurance that cannot be bestowed by thousands of screaming fans.  Let’s not forget the cautionary tales of those who seemingly “have it all” yet drown and lose themselves in drink and drugs because standing ovations can’t fix pain.  No matter where you go, there are you are.  Instead, change how you feel about yourself and realize you could have a pretty amazing life if you just started living the one you have and not the imagined one that everything you read and see is telling you that you deserve.

Endless rage will never get us what we really want in life – namely, to stop feeling so angry.  It is the very definition of self-defeat.  So no, Hulk no need to smash.  Hulk need to calm down, be nicer to wife and kid, plant tree and take up productive hobby.  Hulk might find he happier and other stuff not bother him so much.  And everyone get along better.

Skyfall Countdown Day 19: Casino Royale (1967)

Peter Sellers and Orson Welles on the one day of shooting they were able to stand the sight of each other.

According to Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, the final advice given to her by her father Cubby before he turned over the reins was, “Don’t let them screw it up.”  Broccoli and her step-brother Michael G. Wilson, who have led the franchise’s Eon Productions since Goldeneye in 1995, are notorious in the movie industry for their unflinching control over Bond’s adventures, and scores of film critics have lamented this, wishing that A-list auteurs like Quentin Tarantino or the Wachowskis could be given a chance to put their own imprint on 007.  The Eon family steadfastly refuses, preferring to keep Bond a closed shop and handpick directors who will adhere to their vision of what they believe James Bond to be.  It’s difficult to argue with their approach given the ongoing success they’ve achieved, and even more difficult when one considers the first Bond movie made outside the official canon.  One cannot imagine more of an object lesson in “screwing Bond up” than 1967’s Casino Royale.

Although it was the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale was not included in the package of big screen rights purchased by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  Ian Fleming had originally sold them to a producer named Gregory Ratoff, who first made Casino Royale as a live one-hour TV special in the 1950’s, starring Barry Nelson as an American “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.  The rights were subsequently acquired by producer Charles K. Feldman, who, unable to come to terms with Broccoli and Saltzman, decided to strike out on his own with the world’s first feature James Bond parody.  With Peter Sellers signed to play Bond and Orson Welles as Le Chiffre, one might think something at the very least mildly entertaining might result; unfortunately, it didn’t (depending on how much entertainment one derives from watching cinematic train wrecks.)  Sellers walked off the movie before finishing his scenes, and a patchwork story featuring David Niven as a retired Sir James Bond was slapped together to try and pad the movie out to an acceptable running time.  Five directors, parades of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them stars and some unfunny surrealist attempts at comedy result in a goofy, incoherent yet oddly stylistic and unmistakably 60’s mess.

The plot, such as it is, is that with the “Connery” James Bond missing, a baccarat expert named Evelyn Tremble (Sellers) is recruited by the original Sir James Bond and Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, getting to use her real voice this time) to impersonate 007 and try to bankrupt Le Chiffre at the gaming table.  Though given plenty of opportunity to find laughs with the material, Sellers plays his part completely and stubbornly straight – he’s like that hilarious friend you have who refuses to crack wise for the rest of your guests because he had a bad day.  The problem is, the actors who are playing the movie for laughs, like Niven and Woody Allen (as Sir James’ hopeless nephew Jimmy Bond, who turns out to be the evil mastermind behind the entire affair because of his inferiority complex) aren’t the slightest bit funny.  Long stretches ooze by during which you’ll be hard pressed to crack a single smile while you wait for Sellers to return, since at least his story bares some resemblance to what Ian Fleming wrote.  After Sellers abandoned the production, the collective decision among the movie’s remaining creative team seems to have been to compensate by throwing in the kitchen sink, the dishwasher and a couple of refrigerators.  If Republicans want to complain about out of control spending, they should watch the last twenty minutes of this movie.  With Sellers and Welles long out of the picture, the casino floor erupts in a massive brawl that somehow manages to include Frankenstein’s monster, George Raft accidentally shooting himself, Jean-Paul Belmondo looking in a phrasebook to understand how to say “ouch” in English, clapping sea lions wearing “007” tags and a squadron of parachuting Apaches who proceed to hold a ceremonial war dance that turns into a mass performance of the mashed potato, before the entire building explodes from a bomb accidentally swallowed by Woody Allen.  I only wish I was making this up.

Amidst the outpouring of nonsense, the production did manage to sneak in some tremendously beautiful women:  Barbara Bouchet is simply luscious as Miss Moneypenny Jr., Daliah Lavi slinks vampily through two scenes for no apparent reason, and a yet-to-hit-it-big Jacqueline Bisset pops up briefly as a barely clothed spy who shares a brief romantic interlude with Sellers before slipping a mickey in his champagne.  Ursula Andress is her usual gorgeous self, if her part is regrettably cut short by Sellers’ departure.

Burt Bacharach handles scoring duties, assisted by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and contributes the movie’s singular lasting contribution to popular culture:  the song “The Look of Love,” performed by Dusty Springfield, which would go on to become something of a jazz standard and feature in the Austin Powers movies.  Otherwise, this movie is nothing more than a morbid curiosity – you can’t really call it a guilty pleasure, since there’s little pleasure to be gleaned from watching otherwise distinguished actors like Niven, Welles, Belmondo, William Holden and Peter O’Toole make utter asses of themselves in service of… nothing, really.  Perhaps if one were to consume a copious amount of acid prior to watching, some deeper revelation of the secrets of the universe might unfold, or at the very least, the plot might make sense.

Casino Royale would be something of a thorn in the side of Eon Productions for the decades that followed, with Michael G. Wilson often suggesting going back to it and showing Bond’s origins.  But it wouldn’t be until the rights were finally untangled in the mid-2000’s and returned to Eon that they’d get their chance and be able to adapt Ian Fleming’s groundbreaking first James Bond novel with the respect it deserved – and not screw it up.

Tomorrow:  George Lazenby becomes the George Lazenby of James Bond.

Varying degrees of greatness

The City of Calgary, wallowing in its greatness.

At the Stampede last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper got up in front of his adopted hometown crowd and proclaimed Calgary the greatest city in Canada.  This being the political climate where no off-the-cuff comment goes un-deconstructed en masse (and Harper being the veteran politician who says nothing that hasn’t been poll-tested), cries of favouritism erupted from his opposition.  In my best mood on my best day I’m hard-pressed to say anything positive about the guy, but this is one instance in which critics just make themselves look silly by raising a public ruckus.  The man is standing in front of a crowd in Calgary – he’s hardly going to tell them that “well, you guys are pretty awesome but Whitehorse totally rocks my socks.”  Does anyone believe that when Bono drops the name of the city U2 is playing in he’s doing it out of a genuine conviction that his time spent in this metropolis has been the most rewarding of his life, or do they recognize that it’s merely an applause line?  I’ve been to Calgary once, for a weekend, and what I saw of it seemed very nice, as did its people, but I’m not sure that it would qualify for this ambiguous concept of greatness anymore than any other Canadian city, town or backwater burg it’s been my fortune to pass through.  The problem isn’t a lacking on Calgary’s part, it’s more a general unease about how to qualify something as great.

“Great” is a word we’ve tossed around so often that it’s become meaningless.  “What a great movie.”  “She’s such a great girl.”  “These are the greatest cookies I’ve ever tasted.”  Yet despite its overuse, the concept of greatness is one that we value greatly.  I remember reading a book in Philosophy 101 called God, the Devil and the Perfect Pizza.  I may get the details wrong – I wasn’t quite the seasoned thinker I am now (snicker) when I first ploughed through it and was distracted by the gorgeous blonde in the very short black miniskirt seated two rows ahead of me.  But the concept was basically a more plain-spoken rehash of the ontological argument that one could prove the existence of God through logic, if one accepted the premise that God was the greatest conceivable being, and that existence being a necessary component of greatness (the idea that a God who did not exist would not, in fact, be the greatest conceivable being), God must therefore exist.  Where the book has fun with this is twisting the argument around to prove by a similar method, the existence of the Devil (hypothesized as the worst conceivable being) and the greatest conceivable pizza.  I don’t think I ever quite grokked the logical twists that validated this line of thinking – I suppose if you’re religious and looking to disprove an atheist it could come in handy.  But the idea of the greatest conceivable anything stuck with me.  “Greatness,” like beauty, is so totally subjective – one man will vomit up in disgust the meal the gourmand thinks is the greatest thing he’s ever eaten – that who I picture as the greatest conceivable being will differ completely from yours, and the next guy’s, and the next guy’s after him.  (Mine might look like that blonde.  I swear, her toned legs in that black mini were a wonder to behold.)

We see this daily in the critical sphere:  endless top ten lists recounting beloved movies, music, literature, artwork, key lime pies.  Quality can be agreed on universally to a point – certainly few can put forth defensible arguments that Plan 9 from Outer Space is a better movie than 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But beyond that point lies the uncanny valley where opinion takes over and cements the final determination, as individual as the person offering it.  It’s also why people usually react badly to self-proclaimed greatness, like when folks who haven’t ventured over their county line announce that America is the greatest country in the world.  Opinions about one’s own greatness are the least valued, especially when one cannot walk the walk, as it were.  Muhammad Ali’s boasts are the stuff of sports legend, but he could back it up in the ring.  How though, do you determine the relative greatness of a more abstract concept like a city, especially if you’re predisposed to bias because you live there (or represent it in the House of Commons)?  Do you base it on hard statistics, like crime, transportation, wealth, homelessness and pollution, or on the equally abstract idea of character?  How do you say with certainty that one city’s character is better than another’s?  The people are nicer, there are more interesting restaurants, the tourist attractions are less cheesy, you can always find a place to park?  Woody Allen once observed that the primary cultural advantage of Los Angeles was the ability to turn right on a red.  It seems that any judgment on the relative greatness of anything is fated to be equally pithy, given that ultimately, the criteria used to make this determination are so esoteric as to defy classification.

Or, in English, there is no such thing as “the greatest.”  There are things that are great and things that are even greater than those first great things.  But “greatest” is forever elusive.  And that is probably great in itself, because it will force us to continue to aim for it.  Declaring oneself the greatest is admitting that not only can you go no further, you don’t even want to try.  You’re entirely satisfied.  You’re done.  And lack of ambition, of aspiration, of the dream of progress, is not a quality associated with greatness in any way.

Besides, everyone knows that the greatest city in Canada is <404 error file not found>

Walking after midnight

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris.

Were the good old days really so wonderful?  That’s the question at the heart of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, his 2011 movie I was finally lucky enough to see this past weekend.  After a somewhat overlong travelogue opening, a taut, beautifully shot 90 minutes tells the story of successful yet frustrated screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson), trapped in a relationship with high-maintenance Inez (Rachel McAdams), her conservative parents and tiresomely elitist friends.  Setting out drunkenly on his own one warm Parisian night, Gil is picked up by an old car precisely as the clock strikes twelve and finds himself in the Roaring Twenties alongside such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso.  He has his debut novel critiqued by Gertrude Stein, suggests movie plots to Luis Bunuel, inspires Salvador Dali and ultimately falls in love with a beautiful French muse named Adriana (the always spectacularly alluring Marion Cotillard) who is herself pining for a more golden era – the 1890’s France of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge.  Woody Allen isn’t interested in the mechanics of the typical time travel plot – how Gil is able to journey to the 1920’s and back every night remains an enigma that even Gil isn’t that keen on solving.  The magic just happens, and he rolls with it, soaking in the wonder of being surrounded by his heroes, people to whom he can relate with greater ease than anyone in the present day.

It’s a dilemma to which I suspect many of us writers can relate, and indeed, the writers who make up the voting membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were taken with the message enough to award it Best Original Screenplay despite Woody Allen’s persistence in ignoring all the Oscars he’s ever won.  We are mired somewhat in our admiration for the traditions forged by those who have tread the path before, people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac to name but a very limited few.  We eye with disdain the half-efforts by celebutantes, reality show castoffs and vampire devotees finding wide readership today and question how we can possibly be a product of the same era.  We must belong to an earlier, more golden, more innocent time, where our deepest literary ponderings would find sympathetic ears at every turn.  In the movie, Gil is taken aback when he and Adriana find themselves even further in the past, in the time where she wants most to be, and discover that the literati of that era are dismissive of their present and longing for the Renaissance.  The conclusion eventually drawn by Gil is that the sense of nostalgia is a continuous thread winding its way through each subsequent generation, that it is not by any means unique to the children of today.

Chances are great that if any of us was to experience the timeslip of Midnight in Paris and be transported to that bygone slice of history – to the Capraesque American heartland of the 1940’s, to pick but a single example – we too would not find our nostalgia sated for long; we would see the people around us saddened by harshness of their present and longing for the easier days gone by.  The past is, ultimately, prologue.  As hard as it is to imagine, the people of the 2050’s may look back on 2012 with fond memories, recalling wistfully when gasoline cost only as much as it does now, when we still had polar icecaps and polar bears for that matter, when the kids danced to Lady Gaga and Rihanna, the iPad was the hottest thing going, and the world held its breath waiting for the next Hunger Games movie.  I have lived long enough to see one particular decade of which I have strong memories – the 1980’s – transform from what was normal to what is camp and kitsch; how long before the subtle shirts and ties I wear to work every day become the subject of mockery like leg warmers and acid wash jeans?

The lesson I take from Midnight in Paris is that the past is a nice place to rhapsodize about, but you shouldn’t want to live there, because you likely wouldn’t like it as much as you think you will.  Instead, the past should only help us make better choices going forward, as Gil realizes when Gertrude Stein’s critique of his novel prompts him to make a radical change in his present-day life – for what turns out to be the better.  So as much as I might like to sit in the room while Jack Kerouac pounds out On the Road on his rolls of typewriter paper, share a fireside chat with FDR or float in the Eagle with Armstrong and Aldrin, I do their legacies and the world no favors by waiting around for it to actually happen.  My task is to blend my romanticism of the olden days with the experiences of my own life into something worthy and lasting, both in how I live my life and what I put down in words.  And perhaps, someday in the far future, someone yet to take their first breath on this wonderful earth will wonder about what it would have been like to spend an afternoon in my company.  They may very well – for reasons passing our understanding at this point – see these days above all others as the golden age.  Don’t we owe it to them to try and make this time worth getting nostalgic about?