No one knows quite what to do with the Western these days. Maybe the genre has just gone out of fashion, maybe it became too riddled with clichés, maybe movie-goers love CGI too much to appreciate a nineteenth-century action flick, but I suspect the core problem is that the classic Western is a fairy tale: the violent, lawless wilderness breached by the noble forces of civilization. Those stark black-and-white morals—conveyed literally with the iconic black and white hats—seem archaic now, not necessarily because of the rigid ethical dichotomy but because this particular metaphor is obsolete. We’re uncomfortable demonizing the American Indian (as we should be), we tend to romanticize the untamed wilderness, and we know too much about how the West was won to celebrate that victory without some reservation.
The romance of the Western can be charming, yes, but it’s a musty charm, even in most contemporary examples of the genre, and 3:10 to Yuma is one of that majority. Despite the fresh acting, smooth direction, and Deadwood-esque profanities, it still feels very much like what it is: a remake of a fifty-year-old movie, a lovingly preserved museum piece.
When Sean and I set out piano shopping, we expected to buy a nice, well-made, factory-built piano—a Yamaha, maybe, or a Kawai.
I have loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies for years. I admire the cinematic artistry and the gorgeous thematic arcs and the finely drawn characters, but what I love most is the profoundly empathetic quality of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love. Anderson has a remarkable ability to take characters we might otherwise dismiss with a sneer—a dim-witted porn star, a drug-addled but repentant gold digger, a painfully shy man with anger management issues—and create clear-eyed but exquisitely human portraits, quietly insisting that we see shades of ourselves in them. There is nothing cynical or cruel about the stories Anderson tells. The honesty, patience, and tenderness of his films move me each time I see them.
So I don’t know quite what to do with There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s latest. It has all those great aesthetic and artistic qualities: long dramatic tracking shots, brilliant lighting, striking use of music. The arc of the movie, with Daniel Day-Lewis’s intense performance in the central role, is beautifully wrought, not a simple rise-and-fall storyline but something more interesting and muddy. But There Will Be Blood is also much colder than I expect from Anderson, and that saddens me. Without the warmth of his previous films, Blood left me impressed and intrigued but unmoved.
On Xbox 360.
It is a real testament to how insanely fun and addictive Rock Band is that I forgive it the shoddy hardware and shooting pains I get up my right arm when I play the “guitar” for too long. The strum bar on our guitar controller gave out after a couple of weeks, and my cousin’s broke in less than twenty-four hours, but as soon as we received our replacements (and to be fair, we received new, sturdier controllers at no cost within a matter of days), all anger was forgotten: we happily returned to faux rocking and all the carpal tunnel problems that go along with it.
Watching the movie, I felt unsettled, crushed, dismayed, stung, battered—and completely bewildered that it was not a horror flick but an ostensibly life-affirming film that was so brutally wringing me dry. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is absolutely beautiful to see, an astonishing cinematographic vision of light and color and breathtaking imagery, but that artistry is in service to an emotional bludgeon of a movie.
The Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday, January 8.
Such a weird opera. That’s inevitable, of course, given how creepy the fairy tale is, what with the aggravated parental abandonment and the grotesque cannibalistic witch, but still, Hansel and Gretel is such a weird opera. Even after the librettist cleaned up the story (the mother shoos her children outside, but she doesn’t actively seek to ditch them in the woods), we’re still left with the narcoleptic-pushing Sandman and the witch force-feeding Hansel before succumbing to a fiery end in the oven, her demise celebrated by a chorus of children who throng to devour her corpse, and all of it set to a Wagner-lite score. Weird.
But not without charm, I guess. Hansel and Gretel’s well-known evening prayer is lovely, and the less-familiar bits share that song’s tuneful appeal and lush harmonies. Composer Engelbert Humperdinck, a protégé of Wagner, uses intricate chromatics without ever becoming harshly dissonant, and if I can’t quite take his work seriously, that’s mainly because I can’t hear his name without thinking of Carol Kane shrieking at Billy Crystal. (The Princess Bride. Different Humperdinck. Not even remotely relevant.)
Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel/memoir of growing up in revolutionary Iran is interesting in its contradictions. Part of the appeal, for Western readers, is how identifiable young Marjane is, with her love of Bruce Lee and Iron Maiden and other icons of American pop culture. She’s a normal, impish little kid. We feel we know her. Yet a central theme of the memoir, particularly the second volume, is how Marjane herself doesn’t feel as integrated in our culture as we imagine her. Attending school in Europe, she feels isolated, the classic stranger in a strange land. She detests our tendency to see her as “exotic.” She resists our inclination to adopt her. Marjane’s coming-of-age story is largely about coming to terms with her identity as someone apart from us.
The film adaptation of Satrapi’s memoir (written and directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Satrapi herself) preserves that conflicted push-pull quality and virtually everything else about the acclaimed work, from Marjane’s distinct voice to the episodic storytelling to the almost cartoonishly simple black-and-white aesthetic. The result is idiosyncratic but powerful, a reminder of just how versatile and compelling animation can be.
The New York City Ballet on Wednesday, January 2.
Watching Jewels, George Balanchine’s “first abstract full-evening ballet,” I always felt slightly overwhelmed, like there was too much happening on stage to process it all. Without really thinking about it, I had assumed the lack of narrative would make the ballet less busy, free as it is from the distractions of plot and character, but actually the opposite is true. A story organizes the action: you know who is important, where they’re going, and what the dance “means.” An abstract ballet strips that framework away, forcing you to make sense of everything on your own.
Thus deprived of my crutch, I enjoyed Jewels but felt a bit daunted by it. Of course I’ve seen abstract work before, but the sheer magnitude of this “full-evening” ballet made it feel different. But I had the music, beautiful and familiar, to lean on, and I had the company’s obvious familiarity with the work to lead me, and in the end, no degree of intimidation could dull the sparkle of Jewels.
The score of Atonement haunts me. Its theme—romantic but foreboding, emotional but restrained—is undergirded throughout by the percussive beat of a typewriter: keys clicking, typebars striking paper, carriage shuttling home. At first, the effect might seem mannered, even over-literal, but it sets a mood of disquiet, and as the film unfolds, its meaning becomes apparent.
That orchestration is beautifully characteristic of the movie’s artistry. The aesthetic choices often call attention to themselves—we notice the painterly framing, the slippery sense of perspective, the evocative set pieces—but none of those choices is arbitrary, existing solely for its own sake. Rather, each lends itself to the storytelling to create a strikingly cinematic realization of novelist Ian McEwan’s literary prowess.
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