Thursday, 19 February 2009

Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater is the archetypal post-modern director. His career, sprinkled with both the commonplace and the divine, is typical of the artist riding the Hollywood rollercoaster.

Famous for: Dazed and Confused, The School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation

He started out doing credit-card-budget short film (Woodshock, 1985) and slice of life stuff (It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, 1988) before settling into a few years of "Keep Austin Weird": Heads I Win/Tails You Lose and Slacker, his first breakout film--pretty much on par with Kevin Smith's Clerks.
In 1993 Linklater got some serious money together and created Dazed and Confused, a coming-of-age classic starring freshfaced actors Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Ben Affleck and Parker Posey.

Two years later he wrote and directed Before Sunrise. The lightly-played romance unfurled through Vienna's cobbled streets, and was quietly discovered by video store addicts, one by one. The sequel Before Sunset was released in 2004 and is, in my opinion, one of the best films ever made. Set in Paris, it is as ad-libbed as it is scripted, and the dialogue and characterisations by Hawke and Delphy are as naturalistic as can be put to film. Romantic themes in American films are typically as subtle as a shovel to the face, so the real-time conversational mode in the films comes as blissful relief.
Linklater entered the L.A. cultural wasteland for the next decade, churning out trash (The Newton Boys, SubUrbia) and in 2003 The School of Rock which, while fun and freewheeling, is pretty ordinary stuff.
One of his side projects--you could say side effects--of his studio-dictated existence was an animated squiggle-vision film in 2001 called Waking Life which explored a level of philosophy best appreciated under the influence of class-B hallucigens. He followed up in 2006 with a similar project featuring, appropriately, Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr, called A Scanner Darkly.

He returned to his roots in 2004 with a documentary, $5.15/Hr, about a Denny-like restaurant and the peons who inhabited it. He pushed the concept through to a grand pasture-to-plate in the major 2008 release, Fast Food Nation.
His other cinema films of the last decade, Tape (Ethan Hawke blackmails a fellow Dead Poets' Society alum) and a 2005 remake of Bad News Bears, don't bear the Linklater imprimateur. He spent time in front of the camera in Slacker and Waking Life, and also wandering into odd parts in other films: non-cameo roles credited as 'Crony 2', 'Cab Passenger', or 'Cool Spy', even decades after he was well-known as a director and writer.

Linklater is currently submerged, plumbing the murky depths in a longtudinal film known only as Untitled 12-Year Richard Linklater Project, tentatively slated to come out in 2013.

The man's a craftsman. Give him time.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Malcolm Gladwell

Writing interesting non-fiction is hard to do. Malcolm Gladwell's three books have stuck to the top of bestseller lists because of his ability to tell fascinating, offbeat anecdotes, and to weave them artfully into a narrative thread.

If this entry looks too long to read, you can skip to the bottom for links to a video and a magazine article.

'The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference' looked at ideas whose time had come, how those ideas spread, who spread them, and what made them special. In a particularly interesting section, "The Law of the Few", he describes three personality types: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. Connectors maintain large, loose social networks; they "span many different worlds" through their contacts. Mavens deal with information: asking questions, ferreting out answers, volunteering weird solutions; "someone who wants to solve other people's problems, generally by solving his own." (You may know someone like this.) Salesmen deliver agreements through sheer force of charisma. All three of these types are instrumental in disseminating new ideas. Gladwell goes on to demonstrate how phenomenons like 'Sesame Street' have a "Stickiness Factor", and how context can heavily influence mass behaviour.

On his New Zealand tour promoting 'Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking', Gladwell raised a challenge before appearing on the screen: based upon his voice, his bona fides and his name, what might he look like?

- Obama's cousin, Sideshow Bob.

His point--that we front-load our experiences by comparing a situation with many past situations, very rapidly--is what he calls "thin-slicing". In the blink of an eye we draw on vast reserves of knowledge and react, or rather, judge, and he puts forward the theory that this gut reaction is remarkably accurate. In just a few seconds a person's initial response to a situation can be statistically similar to one made after the experience of months or years.
Of course, in his example the audience's thin-slicing was wrong, and showed the flip-side: prejudice and conservatism. (It falls to evolutionary psychologists to explain those characteristics.)

His latest, and my favourite, book is called 'Outliers: The Story of Success'. Here he unpacks the back stories of geniuses, sports stars, and other singular figures held up as icons of human achievement.
The classic tale of Bill Gates is of a college dropout who built a corporation from a garage business. Pleasing as this 1980's telling of the American Dream may be, Gladwell, reveals a more nuanced story.
Gates' father, an attorney, sent his son to one of the few high schools in America with a computer (this was the late 1960's), which Gates spent up to 15 hours a day programming. Having exhausted its capabilities, he was given access to a corporate mainframe in Seattle. After graduating with nearly perfect SAT scores and serving as a page in Congress, Gates continued to program at Harvard. Because the college did not have a programming degree, he took a leave of absence to start a business with a friend: they created BASIC for the Altair, which was then widely pirated, and later bought DOS and sold it to IBM.
Gladwell demonstrates two ideas: that high achievers had huge support from friends and relatives, and had more than 10,000 hours' experience in their field. Olympic athletes, nuclear physicists, The Beatles: all were carried for many years by people and institutions, and all logged the magic 10,000 hours.

Aside from his books, Gladwell has written extensively for the New Yorker and the American Spectator. The following New Yorker article is about a company trying to predict hit Hollywood movies, an industry where, as he quotes William Goldman, "Nobody knows anything."

I've been following Malcolm Gladwell since 'Blink' in 2005, and find that he pops up in odd places. His TED talk below features a profile on a pasta-sauce guru.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009


My blog, after a short period of death and minor necrosis, is revived, much like a deity returned to bring you good news. The news is this: as my life is boring and contains little presentable material, I will do what zombies have done throughout all modernity: write scathingly about the accomplishments of others.

This blog will be a series of reviews of films, books, articles, ideas, and websites which you will not have seen and will be interesting to you. Lots of them will be cool. Some will be bad. A few will be awful, and will serve merely as a warning to fellow-travellers.

At any rate, it gives me an opportunity to spray my opinions, like gules of warm sputum, among the readers of the Interwebs. Enjoy.


Rule #1 Of Management dictates that there must be one person to blame (or at least to blame most). In 'Valkyrie's case, it is director Brian Singer, who has chalked up a singular accomplishment: to make a film about blowing up Hitler boring.

Arrrrrrrr. I shouldn't have passed on Jack Sparrow.

Tom Cruise cannot be blamed, as, like the missile which shares his name, his course cannot be altered once he is in flight. The formula beneath the Nazi regalia and eyepatch is identical to that girding all his hit roles: handsome, embattled underdog saves the day while grimacing.
But Brian Singer has done better. 'The Usual Suspects', for one. Even 'Apt Pupil' was a nuanced view of--guess what--Nazis. But the Singer who directed (and wrote) 'X-Men' and 'X2' orchestrated the ride of 'Valkyrie' directly off a cliff.
It is one thing to make a bad film, but unforgivable to drag two perfectly good actors into the proceedings in the name of ensemble casting. Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson should never have been exposed to dreck of this magnitude. On the other hand, Bill Nighy has long since spent his respectable-actor capital on vampire and Xmas films, and Eddie Izzard seemed delighted just to be wearing men's clothes.
Apart from being dull, dreary and overcast in a pall of expensive-serious-movie lighting, the film commits the grevious sin of unrepentent self-righteousness. Cruise's character's wife (complete with Child One and Child Two) moves and emotes as though the invisible book on her head may topple at any time. Period piece dramas--I'm looking at you, 'Remains of the Day'--can get away with this through unflaggingly strong acting. 'Valkyrie' cannot. It is underplayed and overblown, hitting every false note on the scale.

Worth seeing at the cinema: No
Worth downloading: No
Better alternative: 'Conspiracy' (2001) has Branagh as a Nazi (honestly, he's done this at least four times), with Stanley Tucci in an ice-cold Eagle's Nest meeting about the Final Solution.