21 Gram Salute

It’s not often you run across a film that is expertly acted but entirely devoid of all meaning and substance. 21 Grams has that rare distinction. Here is the plot in a nutshell. Three people are devastated. They are devastated from the very beginning, they arc through a period of lesser devastation, and then this lesser devastation gradually resolves into–unholy, unthinkable devastation. It’s like being at a funeral for two and a half hours –but not the normal kind of funeral, where the family holds it together for the sake of appearances—this is more like the kind where people scream and tear their hair out and leap into the casket. Possibly even a Viking funeral, where horses and servants are sacrificed, too, and all the carcasses go onto an enormous flaming pyre that crackles and sizzles like a smoldering volcano, and pretty soon the pyre erupts, filling the sky with clouds of ash and fire and smoke. The explosion is so massive it’s visible from space.

Like I said, though, the acting is amazing. Sean Penn comes across as an authentic, troubled guy, but not exactly the gentle high school math teacher he’s supposed to be. Nope, he’s pretty much that thuggish character from Mystic River, without the accent. Anyway, he’s just gotten a heart transplant, and he’s obsessed with finding out who the donor was. Naomi Watts is pretty decent as a drugged out soccer mom who loses her husband and kids in a single accident. And Benicio del Toro—ah, the lovely Benicio del Toro—well he’s perfect as a born-again ex-con who is so haunted by his past that at times it’s almost unbearable to watch him. This man is an incredible actor, as is Sean Penn, but the plot rapidly falls out from under them, and they’re left in this dark, vast, no man’s land that makes me think of the room with the giant hanging cages in Time Bandits. And that’s an apt comparison, really, because the point being hammered home is that they’re all imprisoned in their own way. You’d think this kind of depth of purpose would make the story interesting to watch. But you’d be wrong.

You know how you sometimes read a novel and say, “it was okay, but it probably should have been a short story instead”? Well, this film should have stayed a preview. I say that because I loved the preview, and it captivated me in a way that the film itself never did. There just wasn’t enough raw material to spread out over two and a half freakin’ hours, especially when two hours and twenty-nine minutes of that involves someone on a crying jag. (The other minute was Sean Penn smoking.) This film needed lots of editing and some kind of an ending, someplace to go besides the shapeless, irrational bog of suffering into which the characters eventually sink. I felt sick to my stomach after watching it, and I felt tricked, like the victim of a particularly nasty bait-and-switch. The acting is so good it drags you along for every gut- wrenching mile, but the movie itself leaves you feeling—well—devastated.

Music. It’s Worth It.

During a lengthy bout with the flu this winter, I found myself watching a lot of television. This led me to the unsettling discovery that there are entirely too many psychics cashing in on their alleged abilities. I don’t have a problem with the idea of psychics in general–after all, most of us use an embarrassingly small portion of our brains, and it just makes sense that there’s some extrasensory stuff left over from the era when we had to fend off three saber tooth tigers before breakfast every day. But these people on my television–these John Edwardses and James Van Praaghs–are just so pompous and silly. ”I’m sensing that someone here recently lost a relative whose name began with a J. And I’m also sensing that this person liked cheese enchiladas? Is that right? Does this sound familiar to anyone?” Yeah, maybe you’re sensing the cooking show on the set next door, John.

Anyway, it’s my opinion that we should put these people to work contacting dead rock stars, so we can get something much more valuable than the psychic shows have ever given us–more great music. That’s right, think of all those never-written songs that Heroin & Co. cheated us out of. I’d start with Layne Staley, because I’m personally obsessed with Alice in Chains. Beyond that we’d have to include Jeff Buckley, Carl Perkins, Tammy Wynette, Kurt Cobain, that guy from Sublime, and, just for kicks, Tupac. I’d include Johnny Cash, too, but I suspect he wouldn’t care to cooperate. He’d just give us the finger from the other world and be done with it. Oh, and while they’re at it, the psychics should also seek out Douglas Addams. I think at heart he was a musician who just happened to write some kickin’ books.

Notice that I wouldn’t summon anyone who died more than ten years ago. These folks have most likely gotten too acclimated to their new surroundings, and it would be next to impossible to extricate their essence from the ether. Even if such a thing could be accomplished, there’s still the question of ethics. I mean, it would be criminal to deny Janis Joplin, or say, Charlie Parker, the bliss of eternal respite. And are you going to be the one to tell Beethoven that his legacy was insufficient, that he has to leave off his heavenly pedicure and crank out a tenth symphony? I sure don’t want to. Those who died more recently, though, are still in a tough transition period, and are probably wistful for the time when they were at their most prolific. So let’s give them the chance to do just that! The musicians get to write one more time, and we get to learn a little about what dead rock stars think about. Everyone’s happy.

Now, it’s a necessary stipulation that all posthumous rock-a-thons of this nature be purely voluntary. Otherwise, the whole music industry would go absolutely nuts, trying to squeeze a few more singles out of Elvis. They would point to the “sell-us-your-soul” provision in the musicians’ contracts, and then conjure up William Jennings Bryan to confirm that it’s all binding, even after rigor mortis has set in. To my knowledge, there is no union to protect dead rock stars, so we must be very careful to prevent a feeding frenzy.

Of course, if the participants are unable to contact a single dead rock star, and instead insist on saying ridiculous things like “the musician I’m contacting really liked hacky sack,” they should be kicked off the air for good. No tears. No second chances.

So yes, I humbly declare this to be the idea of the century. It’ll be a boon for music lovers, and it’s the only way I can see to solve the problem of too many psychics on the air. Because when it comes to my television, I will always prefer a large to a medium.

Ha. Ha.

My Hat is Like a Shark’s Fin

It’s been brought to my attention (by one of those treasured friends who you can count on to tell you gently but firmly that for the sake of civility you just MUST wipe that mucus from your nose) that there has been a glaring omission from my list of Greatest Terrible Films of All time, in All Possible Universes. For the sake of artistic purity, I will not be altering that list. I suspect that if I did, I would not be able to stop–I would just keep changing it and changing it, to the exclusion of every other activity in my life, until I finally collapsed from exhaustion while scratching out yet another apologia about why I’ve decided that Sorority Slaughter or Alien Anarchists really deserves a place on my list. But I do feel a little bad about excluding this film, so here goes. Consider it an amendment to the list, but it will be the only one, or else I would just keep adding and adding … (see earlier discussion of compulsive descent into madness).

Deep Blue Sea, starring Saffron Burrows, LL Cool J, and Thomas Jane. Samuel L. Jackson has a bit part, and I do mean bit. I love this movie, because I can tell the writers were struggling to make this standard crunch-n-munch a work of art. There is heavy-handed symbolism, profound statements about messing with good-ole Mother Nature, and the requisite Christ reference. And of course, the joy of having an attractive female scientist in charge is that she simply must remove her clothes in order to save her life! You see, there’s a loose electric circuit that she wants to shock the shark with, and, well, you get the idea. As in every superb crunch-n-munch, the deaths in this film are swift and campy. There is a lot of running, a lot of guilty pouts from the engineer of everyone’s doom, and a lot of gratuitous limb removal. Furthermore, because the sharks have been tampered with to score better than humans on the SATs, they have developed a fantastic sense of comic irony. Case in point: a character is lost in the ocean after a botched helicopter rescue attempt, and one of the sharks returns him to the floating lab on his pallet, flinging him against the glass of the observation deck. At this point, the mischievous shark briefly mugs for the onlookers, as if to throw a little je pense donc je suis in their faces before swimming off to plan her next massacre. That’s comedy, folks!

I’ve been teased about this movie on many occasions. Even my husband, who prefers the Farrelly brothers to Ingmar Bergman any day, shakes his head in dismay when he sees me watching this yet again.

“How can you be a champion of art films and then watch this drivel?”

“Something about the duality of man, sir!” I inevitably shout back, which makes him laugh but doesn’t really answer the question. I could get all profound and talk about how B-films reflect the pervading fears of society (which is correct, of course), but the truth is, I don’t know why I enjoy these kinds of movies. I guess it’s because I like extremes, whether good or bad. I savor the ridiculous every bit as much as the sublime. It’s mediocrity I can’t stand–that vast swampy region in the middle where we are assailed with: a) visually stunning but essentially bloodless love stories; b) sex comedies in which there is nothing resembling either real sex or comedy [_American Pie_ good, Van Wilder bad]; c) empty portraits of honor that don’t resonate with any kind of humanity at all, and are clearly calculated to appeal to a particular demographic who is seeking catharsis fifty years after the fact and wishes to view war as something other than hell [not that I can blame them]; or d) talking animal movies.

Blech.

So I alternate the Coen brothers with Roger Corman. At least I’m honest about it. I hope you enjoy Deep Blue Sea (and all the others on the list) as much as I do, especially when your elite, Fellini-quenched palette is in need of cleansing with some old-fashioned proletarian fun. It’s a little like chasing Dom Perignon with Mad Dog, but hey, they both kill brain cells, right? Salut!