Monday, April 27, 2009

Tribeca: Don McKay

Last year, when I was coordinating Tribeca coverage for Time Out, I asked then-Film editor Melissa Anderson to write up a guide to choosing the good films based on their synopses (usually about 75 words in the festival program). She produced a wry little do's and don'ts piece, one of which was something like, "Don't see anything with the words cancer and comedy in the same description."

After watching this film, please allow me to affirm that statement.
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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tribeca: My Last Five Girlfriends

A quick word on my selection methodology for my Tribeca films: It was pretty random. I read through a booklet the listed the synopses and circled things that sounded interesting, but I wasn't real choosey because I'd already resolved that I wanted to see a lot of stuff. For instance, I thought this movie sounded cool because it's based on a book by Alain de Botton, which is weird since I've never read anything by de Botton and hardly know anything about him. Did I read some complimentary thing about him that lodged itself in my subconscious? Is it just the "de" in his name? Is it because the book is called On Love and I'm a sucker for Enlightenment-era titles that begin with "On"? Who knows? But to the movie I went.

One thing I didn't consider beforehand is that in a movie called My Last Five Girlfriends, which is actually about a guy's last five girlfriends, there's a hell of a lot of exposition to plow through. Like, half a movie's worth. The director also seemed to realize the conundrum posed by shitloads of exposition, in that he emptied out damn near every trick in his bag trying to slog through all the girlfriend histories and not lose the audience in the process (or maybe he thought those were the point of the movie -- I'm trying to give the benefit of the doubt). In a weird way it seemed to free him to try any technique or gimmick he'd ever thought of putting in a movie. Montage of scenes acted out by Barbie-ish plastic dolls? Great, let's open with that. A Gondry-esque giant shoe lurking as weird expressionistic symbol in the background of an entire sequence? Save it for girlfriend four!!! The director said beforehand that he was really able to make the movie he wanted. What I think he meant was, I was really able to throw in every idea I've ever written in my notebook. And, boy, did it feel great to cross them all off at once!

Anyway, it was a solid 40 minutes (or more) before we could settle into the crux of this guy's story, which revolves around the last girlfriend. Spoiler alert: It doesn't work out. So the guy is laid low, devastated. We've come to the end of his journey, lived through all these tribulations and disappointments and learned ... I don't know. Ultimately his story just feels hollow. Don't get me wrong, the girlfriend tales ring true as reflections of the modern dating experience and the final gf story is sweet at times, but the director seems reluctant to dive into the emotional core of this guy's problems. He's more concerned with making it safe for us to chuckle at him: observing the guy with a detached, lighthearted tone. The result is that we never feel all that invested in what happens to him. (It doesn't help that the boyfriend character is an unlikeable grouch; I think the actor aimed for "flawed but sympathetic" and overshot.)

The verdict: It's probably a good date movie -- innocuous and occasionally funny. Unless you're in a relationship that's failing in one of the ways depicted onscreen. Then go see Observe and Report.
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Tribeca: The Exploding Girl

The Exploding Girl is a delicate flower that is not so much a film than a Zen meditation on awkward teenage romance. I initially thought I would like this film more than I did. In the opening sequence a boy and a girl catch a ride home with a friend for some type of school break (spring?). The boy, obviously smitten with his co-passenger, inquires as to her boyfriend's plans to visit over break. The boyfriend won't be visiting, she says; he'll be too busy doing things with his parents. The boy nods and looks out the window, at which point the camera pauses on his close-up. The pause lasts a full two or three beats longer than your typical reaction shot at the close of a scene. It is a Meaningful Pause, allowing you to drink in many relevant themes from a very small exchange: the pain of the boy's unrequited feelings, the girl's doomed current relationship, the boy's timidity and resignation not to intervene, their mutual insecurity (hers shaded with an endearing naivete).

That was effective, I thought to myself. And I was encouraged because I find it's a promising sign when an artist knows how to wield a good pause. It shows confidence, maturity. He's not a slave to nonstopmotionlightssoundwhizbanglookatme bloviation. But here's the thing about the pause. It's really only effective when deployed amid bursts of meaningful action. You can't have a movie -- or a play, or a speech -- that's all pause. That's a still life. And that's what this movie was; it was all pause.

To the director's credit (and I do want to dilute my criticism because he was a bearded whisper-quiet sensitive type who seemed like he might shrink and burst into tears if you told him his shoe was untied), many of the pauses were compelling. Far more of them than had a right to be. The two leads, notably Zoe Kazan, owned their characters and put on a clinic of nuanced, silent, angsty expression. They could subtly emote like motherfuckers. But a collage of 20-second close-ups eventually runs out of steam (or never builds up any steam in the first place).

In fairness, I saw this movie under the exact wrong circumstances, rushing in from work after a busy day that started at 6am (a full three hours before my normal waking time) with a trek to Brooklyn to look at a crappy apartment. My ability to follow slowly building under-the-surface tension was not at its peak, but I think it's a bad sign when you doze off for a few moments and wake up to the same shot as before you closed your eyes, of the same character making the same blank, vaguely pained expression.

I do want to praise the director for his conclusion to the movie -- more specifically a magical final shot that was sweet, powerful, moving, everything you'd want. I can probably count on one hand the number of last movie scenes that I've actually liked, but this delivered the emotional fulfillment you want to feel right before the credits roll. And the shot -- it's not a twist or anything, but I don't want to give it away -- derives much of its poignancy from the total inaction and glacial pacing that precedes it. It's like if you're taking the interstate all day through Nebraska and suddenly you come upon an extended curve or a little rise, it feels like you're really hitting some terrain now. If this plot had a more severe arc, or a lot of raging emotional scenes, the tender moment at the end would have seemed ordinary, even precious. That would have been a shame. But there's a reason most people prefer skiing the Rockies to driving through Nebraska.
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Intro to Tribeca

Much as I'm sure you're enjoying the Country Wisdom, I'm going to give you a break (I'm thinking the CW might be more enjoyable if I decreased the frequency -- we'll see). The next week and a half I plan to bombard you with updates -- movie reviews, mostly -- from the Tribeca Film Festival, an event of which I've grown to be quite fond. I only started attending during my first year at Time Out New York, when I was privileged to get our free marketing passes one night and saw a double bill of the fabulous This is England followed by a not-terrible directorial debut from Entourage's Kevin Connolly (don't remember the movie's name).

Last year was less of an outright joy, in that I had hatched an ambitious plan to supercharge Time Out's TFF coverage ... to middling success. Besides catching a few interesting films, I was working 12-to-16-hour days and generally losing my mind over nonresponsive Tribeca organizers, petulant writers, intractable Web bugs and everything else. The event, or, rather, my overreaching scheme to dominate its coverage, served to concentrate and heighten the mounting frustrations I was feeling with Time Out and push me toward a righteously indignant point of no return. Immediately after it concluded, I began interviewing aggressively for other jobs, which led to my escape into the position I now hold, which led to a much greater disillusionment with work and media and the meaning of life, which led to a bleak pre-holiday doldrums that was almost certainly a mild depression (it runs in my family), which led to the current confused, conflicted, just-turned-30 crossroads in which I now find myself.

In a way I could blame Tribeca for launching me into a pre-midlife midlife crisis. But I'm not going to do that. Like I said, I enjoy the event. Our film critics at Time Out always carped about Tribeca and said the New York Film Festival screened much better films (which it inarguably does). They complained that Tribeca lets in too much stuff that's silly or vain or weird -- "indie" in the worst sense. I don't disagree, but I like Tribeca for those same reasons. I like that critics don't like it. To me there's a good-natured, big-tent vibe about Tribeca that I don't get from other festivals (except maybe SXSW). Sure, these movies may be flawed, it seems to say, but come on in, check them out and applaud these scrappy guys for making an effort. Even among the filmmakers who sometimes introduce the screenings there's a gosh-I-hope-you-like-it-ness that you're just not going to get from the auteur darlings of the critical film community.

So there's my paean to Tribeca (guys, you can Paypal my endorsement money to It's a little solicitous, a little disorganized, a little rough 'round the edges, but who among us isn't? It's a festival for the common man, and I dig it.
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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Country Wisdom: Wednesday, April 22

He's so bad he can make a preacher lay down his Bible.

I think we can all agree this one should be retired, in light of recent church improprieties.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Country Wisdom: Tuesday, April 21

If you're explaining something obvious for the third time, you might say ...
You're looking at me like a calf at a new gate.

Alternately, you might say ... You're lookin' at me like someone who's just heard someone say, "You're looking at me like a calf at a new gate."

You know, whatever works for you.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Country Wisdom: Monday, April 20

Mama is always so busy you'd think she was twins.

Yeah, I didn't post Friday or over the weekend, but those were about as lame as this one. Plus, my mom's a gemini so you could say she kind of is twins. If you're into that.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Country Wisdom: Thursday, April 16

When something is for certain, you might say ...
Is a frog's butt watertight?

(Sorry. Some are bound to be duds. And it's sad to see them using the PG version of R-rated expressions.)

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Close Call

Occasionally at work I listen to the All Songs Considered podcast (which led to a short-lived obsession with Carrie Brownstein, but I'll leave that for another day). This afternoon I was struck by the awesomeness of one of the songs -- head-bobbing and everything -- and I checked to see what it was. On the podcast this is harder than it sounds because the show is not divided into discrete tracks; you have to look at how much time has elapsed and guess at how far along you are in the song list that accompanies each episode. So I scrolled down and concluded I must be listening to ... Ryan Adams?!

Ugh. On the scale of unpleasant surprises, this falls somewhere between finding there's no prize in your cereal box and learning you're descended from Hitler (closer to Hitler). Imagine my relief, then, to discover that the song I liked was actually the next one on the list, by some indie band named Okkervil River. So, hurray, there's a sliver of hope for my coolness after all.

Here's the song:

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Country Wisdom: Wednesday, April 15

Owing to my recent trip to Mexico, this daily feature is off to a less than daily start. Also, it's so late after my unpacking that I'll be technically posting on the 16th, but screw it. If you expect professionalism, go read Gawker (or, rather, don't).

The calendar says (special tax day edition):
The revenuer knows more ways to take your money than a roomful of lawyers.

Things I like about this: (1) it has either invented a word -- revenuer -- or introduced me to one I've never heard before, so it's like a Word-a-Day and Weird-Phrase-a-Day all rolled in to one, and (2) there's no artifice to it whatsoever. Engaging a roomful of lawyers would be very expensive; it's just a fact. Whereas a lesser phraseologist might have been tempted to be clever "... more ways to take your money than a Palm Beach divorcee" or wacky "... more ways to take your money than a six-armed magician," this author has remained committed to the goal of unassailable truth, even at the peril of saying nothing very interesting.

The lawyer reference, while numbingly dull, does give me a chance to promote some upcoming material I hope to post within the next month. I shot videos with my parents in Mexico in which I ask them what I should do with my life. In one of them my mom and I debate whether she shamed me out of attending law school.

And since I missed a week, below are some of the Country Wisdom gems that were skipped:

If you're talking about someone who's a little worse for wear, you might say ...
Looks like he's on the backside of hard times. [Apr 14]

(Bears the distinction of using an expression in the set-up--"worse for wear"--that's pithier than the pithy saying itself.)

Just because a chicken has wings doesn't mean it can fly. [Apr 13]

(Probably usable in a looks-can-be-deceiving context, but it doesn't thrill me.)

There's nothin' like eatin' food so yummy that if you spill any on your chin, your tongue will beat your brains out tryng to get at it. [Apr 11-12]

(Again with the brain injury obsession. Though I like the image of my cerebral cortex oozing out my nostril to try to sop up a dribble of especially rich gravy.)

If that ain't the truth, then grits ain't groceries and eggs ain't poultry. [Apr 10]

(Don't know if it makes sense, but THAT's how I want my Country Wisdom to sound. I might pull this out at my next tech networking event. Random entrepreneur: "Facebook needs to find a business model soon." Me: "If that ain't the truth ...")

On excessive talking
She gets tuckered out from her own chin music. [Apr 8]

(Up to now, I've understood "chin music" to mean a baseball pitcher's throwing at a batter's face. That the same phrase could mean a brushback and a stream of conversation seems dubious, and I suspect it's just misused here.)

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A Surprising Discovery

I really fuckin' enjoy Berlin (the band, though I'm fond of the city too). I'll even post the song that led to this discovery. Judge away!

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Things I'm packing for my trip to Mexico

Acid-resistant jumper
Track jacket
Vest (Kevlar)
GPS rescue beacon
Last four months of Esquire
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (ironic value not intended--I just happen to be reading this right now)
500 Helpful Narco-Terrorist Phrases (Berlitz Series)

Who's ready for a carefree tropical escape?????
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Country Wisdom: Tuesday, April 7

Yeeeeeehaaaaaw! Unholster yer six-shooters. Grab yer butter churns. Defile yer cousins and do-si-do. Today is the opening salvo of America's soon-to-be favorite daily* funnybone-tickler: Country Wisdom. (For the verbose and self-involved recap of this segment's origins, read the previous post. Allow me to suggest, as well, that you read these posts aloud in your cheesiest Boss Hog accent. You'll enjoy them 428% more, or your money back.)

Today's calendar page says:
If you're talking about someone who's not too bright, you might say ...
If his brain was dynamite, he still couldn't blow his nose.

Now ... maybe I'm not too bright because I don't get it AT ALL. I guess it's an attempted play on blow your nose/blow up your nose. As in, if one's brain were dynamite, it should be easy to blow (up) one's nose. But like most of these, the analogy falls apart on closer inspection. If my brain were dynamite, would it actually be easier to blow up parts of my face? How would I ignite the dynamite? Is there now a fuse intertwined with my ear hair? And how would I even form an intentional thought to light the fuse, given that I have a cluster of explosives where my brain used to be? I'm imagining that would leave me in a pretty vegetative state.

Or is it that in the world of the dynamite-for-brains, blowing the nose should be the same as blowing up the nose? As though the violence of a massive snot expulsion would cast off intra-cranial sparks which, in a person of high intellect, would set off the brain dynamite. Whereas a person of lower intellect wouldn't have sufficiently combustible mental stuff to cause nasal obliteration. I guess that metaphor works, but you have to admit it's bizarre in the extreme.

Furthermore, none of these exporations adresses the fundamental paradox of a highly intelligent person, whether of normal or dynamite brain, choosing to blow up his face. Let's say I did find myself in the situation of having powerful explosives in my skull. Wouldn't it be a sign of mental acuity (or at least good judgment) to refrain from blowing up my nose--or anything else? In what kind of society are the leading thinkers required to prove their brainy bona fides through conspicuous self-combustion? If this species of person did exist, evolution would have weeded them in a couple of generations. Certainly they wouldn't have been around long enough to spawn a linguistic meme adopted by some tribe of proto-hicks and passed down for millions of years until it reached our beloved Page-a-Day calendar. And short of that, I can't imagine where this expression could have come from. I guess it's just one of life's mysteries.

*By daily, I mean whenever I think of it or want to do it. For instance, I'm leaving tomorrow for Mexico and probably won't maintain the daily schedule during that time. Unless my drug lord captors are into it; then I will spell out the address of my holding location using the first letter of each paragraph of of the post. I sure hope the U.S. Consolate in Mexico City is paying attention to this.

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Country Wisdom: The Origins

A quick observation about writing a blog: It takes a lot of work/creativity/motivation to maintain a blog. You blink and a month's gone by. (That last statement is also an early favorite for my tombstone epitaph. But I digress ... )

Country Wisdom is a feature I've wanted to add for a while; I was just waiting for the right day (see post above). It's based on a delightful Page-a-Day calendar I bought for myself last holiday season. Bearing the irresistible title Butter My Butt and Call Me a Biscuit 2009, this datebook bills itself as a collection of colorful, folksy expressions for use in everyday conversation. It immediately appealed to me for two reasons (three if you count the title).

1. I want to speak like an 1890s farmhand. My grandma on my mother's side was raised on farms in Iowa and Saskatchewan, and she's always sprinkling her speech with these incredible old-timey sayings. They're quick and casual and steeped in agrarian metaphor. (About one of her miserly brothers she might say, "He's tighter than the bark on a tree.") If I could, I'd follow my grandma around and collect these phrases like snow globes. They're effortlessly descriptive and possessed of an easy charm you just don't find much in language anymore. Think of the expressions we've added in the last 25 years. "Tell me about your vacation. I want the full download." Just writing that makes me want to shoot myself. This calendar, I hoped, would give me the same linguistic gems as grandma without the fuss of a cross-country flight and questions about my marital prospects.

2. I want to recapture my Southern roots. Not that you'd know it from meeting me today, but I was born and raised in South Carolina. It wasn't exactly a Green Acres upbringing. My hometown is blandly suburban and full of Rust Belt transplants, and my parents are liberal West Coast hippies. Whatever Southern influences and dialects that did seep in during my SC years, I began extinguishing around age 12 when I decided I was moving away for college. (I didn't want to seem weird.) What no one told me is that Southern mannerisms come with their share of benefits. If you can get past everyone suspecting you're ignorant and racist, you'll find that Southern folk are also thought to be friendly, honest, polite, disarming, flirty, sexy and plain ol' fun to be around. (Fact: Pharma companies regularly target Southern fraternities and sororities for likable kids that can be molded into bubbly sales reps.) I carelessly tossed all this aside. But I figured with a little twang and some choice pearls of Page-a-Day farmin' wisdom I'd be ready to inherit my destiny as a gentlemen plantation owner for our times (or at least a guy who gets laid at Brother Jimmy's).

So I bought the calendar. I eagerly awaited the new year so I could start amassing my new kernels of chicken-fried wisdom. And here's what I got:

Flirtin' with a married woman is as safe as if you were in Abraham's back pocket and him fixin' to sit down. [Jan 3-4]

(Um, sure.)

You'll sit a long time with your mouth wide open before a roasted chicken flies in. [Jan 5]

(Can't argue with that.)

Gettin' a politician to do somethin' good for our country is like tryin' to poke a cat out from under the porch with a rope. [Jan 9]

(I guess. Do a lot of cat owners do this?)

The easist way to eat crow is while it's still warm, 'cause the colder it gets, the harder it is to swallow. [Jan 10-11]

WTF??? Now I'll admit, I didn't grow up in the deepest, backwoods part of the South, but it was still the South. (Our state museum used to sell pencils with the phrase "First to secede".) I've never heard anyone utter any of these things. Or anything close to these things. And why would they? The phrases don't exactly roll off the tongue. Plus they're weird and often nonsensical (roasted chickens don't fly!).

And it's not like the subsequent weeks brought a whole lot of usable material either.

If someone is acting like a martyr, you might want to say ...
Get down off that cross 'cause someone else needs the wood. [Jan 13]

(You know, for burning witches.)

On Living in Sin
Now there's a couple that ate supper before they said grace. [Jan 17-18]

(I wish people did say this one.)

If your child is stalling over doing a chore, you might want to say ...
Time to paint your butt white and run with the antelope. [Jan 29]

(Trust me, there are no antelope in the South. Maybe this was translated from Dr. Spock's Bantu edition?)

There are times in life when you're caught between an angry bull and an angrier bull. [Feb 13]

By this point it was clear that the original mission of the calendar--to augment my conversational arsenal with laser-guided smart bombs of country charm--was lost. And a new purpose had emerged: Entertaining the hell out of me.

Each day at work I rushed to my desk and yanked off another page, giddy to see what crazy shit the calendar held in store. On some mornings, I swear, this is the only thing that drove me to get out of bed and lope into the office. It was a reliable pick-me-up, like a new puppy ambling into your lap when you get home. So I thought, why keep this to myself? From here on out, I plan to post each day's expression and perhaps offer a little commentary, if it warrants. Not all of them are as uproarious as the snippets I've repeated above, but I've found some type of entertainment value in nearly every one. Plus, I'm hoping these semi-canned updates will get me more in the practice of adding to the blog.

So there you go. Enjoy!

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