September 3rd, 2005

Nightly Nothing News

All week I've been sitting, hours after I wanted to be asleep, looking at words and pictures that make me sad and mad. I want some rest. I want this surging inside me to subside. But all I'm able to do is stare at the screen. I know it's wrong to make the 9/11 analogy. Yet my feelings are a mixture of how I felt back then, how I felt after the Rodney King verdict, and how I felt after the Loma Prieta quake of 1989. This disaster has so many sides that you can make analogies until you pass out from exhaustion and still not come close to exhausting the depth of the madness. Something needs to change in the United States and soon. Because even trusting people who go out of their way not to think too hard are going to be thinking hard about the fact that they can no longer trust their leaders to perform even the most basic of governmental tasks: protect its citizens from harm from which they are not able to protect themselves. The right-wingers have been rebelling against the profligate use of their tax dollars since the 1960s. Now, though, even progressives -- see samifo for one example -- are questioning whether it makes sense to pay one's taxes. What do those District of Columbia license plates say? "Taxation without representation." And they aren't the only Americans for whom that applies.

The Constant Gardener

I had originally planned to get out of the house today by going to play basketball. But the JCC seemed far away and I was feeling stiff and tired. So I made the blessedly short drive over to the Foothills Mall to see The Constant Gardener. When Kim and I saw the preview, we thought the film looked lame. Because it has received excellent reviews from critics we like and a film for grown-ups sounded good today, she decided to see it this afternoon, inspiring me to go see an earlier show before her.

I'm delighted that I did. The Constant Gardener is the film that the remake of The Manchurian Candidate tried to be but wasn't. It looks great. The acting is understated and precise. The plot is tight. And it manages to deliver a pointed political message without losing sight of the paradoxes that turn a morality play into something more like Greek tragedy by foregrounding the binds that decent people face when they are caught up in structures that use their decency against them. Indeed, The Constant Gardener reminded me most of last year's Code 46, which explicitly referenced Oedipus Rex in the context of a medical conspiracy plot. The Constant Gardener was less overtly postmodern or allegorical, yet resonated in similar ways.

I've been meaning to read the John Le Carré novel on which The Constant Gardener is based for a couple years now, ever since Kim gave it high marks. But I'm committed to reading his novels in sequence in what little free time I have for reading that has nothing to do with work. Still, I've read enough Le Carré to have a pretty good sense of what the filmmakers had to leave out. I'm willing to bet they did a good job of capturing the novel's texture, which is not an easy thing to do when you convert 400+ pages into a film of a little more than two hours.

I preferred the first 2/3 of the film to the last 1/3, chiefly because the conclusion of the narrative was a little too formulaic in its presentation. What made the first part of The Constant Gardener so powerful was its fluid cutting back and forth across multiple timelines. The scenes in which the protagonist Justin suspects his wife Tess of infidelity or those in which he recalls those suspicions later are particularly strong in this regard.

Watching The Constant Gardener made me want to write something more involved on films with its sort of aesthetics -- claustrophobic framing, loaded use of rack focus, deliberate foregrounding of the background -- and the way audiences do or don't respond to them. I had the distinct impression that the people around me weren't seeing the picture I was seeing, even though they seemed to be liking it. Could it be that films like The Constant Gardener are doing something equivalent to what the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and other directors of his stamp did in the 1950s, using a compelling plot as the vehicle for a more sophisticated message that is conveyed in the margins of the screen? I mean, I realize that this sort of analysis is an easy move for people like me to make. Yet I really do get the sense that there's a stylistic approach building in a number of national cinemas that is self-consciously intended to communicate on more than one level for specific political reasons.

Another Bitter Irony?

I haven't been paying attention to the music publications I usually read this week. There's too much going on. But I just went to Pitchfork, only to learn that Big Star leader Alex Chilton, whose home is near the French Quarter, has apparently been missing since Monday. In the face of so much horror, one person's plight may seem insignificant. And there are plenty of people with fewer resources to prioritize over someone who presumably would have had the means to make his way to safety. All that said, though, it would be a bitter irony for the Nicolini-Bertsch household if something bad had happened to him in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At least the formerly missing Fats Domino has turned up safe and sound.

Turning Around

In these trying times, it's comforting to know that the God-fearing Conservatives beset on every side by liberal inanity still have the courage to speak out. After reading this piece from The Conservative Voice, I realized just how wrong my thinking about the situation in New Orleans has been. This is the sentence that triggered my conversion: "How can one person by the name of G. W. Bush be expected to give back in three days what has been stolen for many decades of spiritual neglect and willful robbing a nation of it's moral compass! " I mean, Jesus probably could have managed it, but he was the son of God and not the son of a Bush. But whether I'm safe in the hands of the former or the latter, its wonderful to feel my worries fade into wisps of memory. My heart can barely contain it's joy.