Sunday, September 30, 2007

Recent Screenings - A Year in Cinema

I don't think you should feel about a film.
You should feel about a woman, not a movie.
You can't kiss a movie.

Jean-Luc Godard

Interesting how our perceptions of films can change over time. Sometimes a film I didn't like on first viewing seems much stronger the second time around. On other occasions, the second viewing makes me wonder why I liked the thing so much in the first place. The jokes don't seem as funny, or the plot drags, or the brilliant observations now seem pretentious.

And then there are the films I don't seen again that somehow resonate strongly in my memory. These works leave an almost physical warmth in the stomach or chest. I see a reference to them somewhere and think, "Oh, what a great film," even though I haven't seen the damn thing in 20 years.

And, of course, there are many movies that vanish completely from my mind. Most of the time, these are mediocre efforts, and it's just as well. But there are also good films that somehow just get forgotten. I recently watched Foreign Correspondent, by Hitchcock, because I didn't think I'd ever seen it. Lo and behold, five minutes into the story, I realized I had seen it before, and not even that long ago. (One advantage of getting older and more forgetful, I suppose, is that you get to enjoy films you've already watched.) It was a fine film. But for me, I guess, it wasn't one of Hitchcock's most "memorable" works.

After realizing I had completed my first year of blogging, I decided to look back through the films I had reviewed over the last 12 months. What had my year of cinema been like? Were there any trends I could discern? Had there been pleasant new discoveries of directors or actors? Which films stood out over time? I can't think of a better recommendation for a film than the fact that I want to see it again.

The first thing that surprised me was how many films I wrote about: 76 in total. I did 56 of these reviews for Recent Screenings, and 20 for other posts. I was also surprised at some of the films I really enjoyed in the last year that I didn't write about. Why do I spend time and energy discussing movies I dislike (40-Year Old Virgin) while ignoring ones I thoroughly enjoyed (Death Takes a Holiday)? In part, I think it's easier to write about films that one hates. Maybe that's why so many reviews in the media are negative. At times, I feel a bit overwhelmed trying to take on a truly great film. I don't know where to start. Sunset Blvd. took an incredible effort on my part, even though I love the film and love talking about it. But give me a real dog of a movie, and I can't wait to spew my invectives against the offenders. Not sure that's a great personality trait.

In any case, here's a review of a year of reviews. . . .

I looked over the 56 films I wrote about in Recent Screenings, and, after the passage of time, here are the ten that most resonate with me for one reason or another. With links to my original posts:

Bas-fonds, Les [The Lower Depths] (1936) - Everyone needs to see a film starring Jean Gabin. This isn't Grande Illusion or Pepe Le Moko, but it was directed by Jean Renoir and has a great atmosphere.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961) - Bergman and Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer, create a beautiful and haunting film.

I Married a Witch (1942) – Fredric March and Veronica Lake. Funny how films that you know aren't the greatest ever made linger so pleasantly in your memory.

Le Mépris [Contempt] (1963) - Godard directs Bardot in his one big Hollywood-ish production. With Michel Piccoli and Jack Palance.

De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté [The Beat That My Heart Skipped] (2005) - One of my discoveries during the year was French director Jacques Audiard.

Quai des Orfèvres (1947) – Henri-George Clouzot. I see this DVD at the local public library all the time, and every time I want to check it out again. Damn it, I'm going to. This week!

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) - William Wyler directs Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright. Just one of the best films ever made.

The Croupier (1998) – Clive Owen. A failed writer, gambling, a big heist. Not sure why this one lingers more than others I saw last year, but it does.

Children of Men (2006) - More Clive Owen (scary.) I still think this was the best film of 2006.

Sunset Blvd. (1950) - Just posted on this. One of the other best films ever made.

I saw two films again, because La Reina was watching them to use in her English as a Second Language-American Culture Through Film class. I liked Little Miss Sunshine more the second time, but there's still something about it that I find annoying. The ensemble acting is great, however. Inside Man held up surprisingly well. In fact, I think I liked it even more the second time, because I could see Spike Lee's craftsmanship more clearly.

I've seen a lot of films that I never reviewed. For some reason, I never wrote about Galaxy Quest, even though I wound up watching it three times during the last year, because I liked it so much. That will change soon, as I saw it again on my trip to Texas and will include it my next Recent Screenings.

I've been watching a lot of French films and older American films. I guess that's not really a surprise. I haven't been watching many Asian films. No Kurosawa in the last year? That's hard to believe.

Fredric March and Clive Owen showed up a lot. La Reina may have something to do with the latter.

I'm not sure at this point I would list The Illusionist as HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. That may have been the excitement of a first viewing. I need to see it again.

In fact, it's somewhat ridiculous for me to offer up "reviews" of films, when I've only seen some of them once. What can you really tell about a film after one viewing, beyond an overall like or dislike? What if I was in a bad mood when I saw something? What if I had a headache and the neighbors were blasting music, and I had wanted to see a comedy instead of a drama? What about films that I see after they've been hyped so much? I would like to see more films a second time before writing about them. But that probably won't happen.

I am, however, going to try and re-watch a few of the films from last year. Mostly ones that I enjoyed, to see how well they hold up. But I'd also like to view Pan's Labyrinth a second time. I was pretty hard on it, but others I respect have said it was great. My curiosity is piqued.

Here's the full list of Recent Screenings films from the past year:

September 1, 2006
Bas-fonds, Les [The Lower Depths] (1936) – RECOMMENDED
Through a glass darkly (1961) - RECOMMENDED
Jane Eyre (1944)
Stalker (1979)
Enigma (2001)
The 40 year old virgin (2005)

September 20, 2006
Winter Light (1962) – RECOMMENDED (But Not for Everyone)
I Married a Witch (1942) – RECOMMENDED
Syriana (2005) – RECOMMENDED
The Farmer's Daughter (1947) – RECOMMENDED
Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Gaslight (1944) – RECOMMENDED
The White Countess (2005)

October 19, 2006
The Illusionist (2006) - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Le Mépris (Contempt) (1963) - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945) - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Before Sunset (2004) – RECOMMENDED
Pal Joey (1957) – RECOMMENDED
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) – RECOMMENDED

February 4, 2007
Laberinto del Fauno, El [Pan's Labyrinth] (2006)
De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté [The Beat That My Heart Skipped] (2005) - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Quai des Orfèvres (1947) – RECOMMENDED
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Thank You for Smoking (2005)
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Hoagy Carmichael watches as Harold Russell plays the piano with hooks in place of the hands he lost during World War II. Fredric March, playing another veteran just home, looks on. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and two acting awards for Harold Russell.

February 25, 2007
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Sur mes lèvres [Read My Lips] (2001) – RECOMMENDED
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) – RECOMMENDED
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) - RECOMMENDED - but only if you've seen Laura first!
Angel (1937)
V for Vendetta (2005)

March 11, 2007
The Croupier (1998) – RECOMMENDED
The Conversation (1974) – RECOMMENDED

April 14, 2007
The Prestige (2006)
Intrus, L' [The Intruder] (2004)
The Reckoning (2003)
Blow Dry (2001)
Calendar Girls (2003)
The Contender (2001)

June 16, 2007
Children of Men (2006) - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Babel (2006) – RECOMMENDED
The Departed (2006) - RECOMMENDED, unless you're un-American and don't like seeing people get SHOT IN THE FACE.
The Queen (2006) – RECOMMENDED
The Good Shepherd (2006) – RECOMMENDED
The Good German (2006) – FAILED EXPERIMENT
Casino Royale (2006) – RECOMMENDED
Inside Man (2006) – RECOMMENDED
Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) - END OF CIVILIZATION

August 18, 2007
Sunset Blvd. (1950) - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

September 18, 2007

The Science of Sleep (2006) – RECOMMENDED
Blood Diamond (2006) – RECOMMENDED
Hot Fuzz (2007)
Alvarez Kelly (1966)
One Touch of Venus (1948)
Lemming (2005)

And here are the other 20 films:

Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea, with Gary Cooper as Professor Bertram Potts, and the other scholars putting together an encyclopedia, in the Billy Wilder-scripted, Howard Hawks-directed Ball of Fire (1941).

Barbara Stanwyck Films
The Lady Eve (1941) – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Double Indemnity (1944) – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Ball of Fire (1941) – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Meet John Doe (1941) – RECOMMENDED
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) – RECOMMENDED
To Please a Lady (1950) – RECOMMENDED
Executive Suite (1954) – RECOMMENDED

5 + 5 Movie Meme
Ran [Chaos] (1985) – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
To Have and Have Not (1944) – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
La dolce vita (1960) – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Swing Time (1936) – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Et Dieu... créa la femme [And God. . . Created Woman] (1956) – RECOMMENDED
French Kiss (1995) – RECOMMENDED
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban (2004) – RECOMMENDED
Quick Change (1990) – RECOMMENDED

Christmas Meme (Movies)
The Bishop's Wife – RECOMMENDED
Christmas in Connecticut – RECOMMENDED

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Richardson Surge?

John Nichols has an article in the October 8, 2007 issue of The Nation entitled, "The Richardson Surge." Here's the first part:

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was supposed to be the cautious candidate Democrats respected but never got excited about. With his extensive diplomatic experience and his hunger for a return to the national stage--if not as a realistic candidate for the presidency then as a top vice presidential prospect or the next Secretary of State--the man who served as Bill Clinton's Energy Secretary and United Nations ambassador was tagged at the time of his January announcement as a deliberate, capable but almost certainly inconsequential contender for the 2008 nomination. But Richardson has refused to play his assigned role, and with an unexpectedly resolute antiwar stance and a freewheeling campaign style that distinguishes him from the field's punch-pulling frontrunners, he is the first member of the race's "also-ran" pack to elbow his way from the margin of error to the verge of serious competition.

Richardson's edgy, opinionated and at times risky high-wire campaign has gained him double-digit poll numbers in the first primary state, New Hampshire, where he has begun to attract endorsements from key local Democrats and favorable reviews from the state's influential newspapers. One recent New Hampshire poll put him ahead of John Edwards. A summer survey of Democrats in the first caucus state by Iowa's Des Moines Register had Richardson in front of Barack Obama and just five points behind Hillary Clinton as the choice of the most likely caucusgoers. In Nevada, another early caucus state, Richardson's support has grown from 2 percent in March polling to 11 percent in August.
To getter a better sense of what Nichols is talking about in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, let's look at some pictures. aggregates all of the various political polls and displays the overall results graphically. The site was developed by Mark Blumenthal, a longtime political pollster, and Charles Franklin, Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in the statistical analysis of polling and election results. Here are the graphs for Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada:

Nichols continues:
Why is Richardson clicking? Against a field of first-tier candidates (Clinton, Obama and John Edwards) who don't mind savaging the Bush Administration's management of the Iraq imbroglio but who regularly fall short of proposing clear exit strategies, Richardson offers not just a résumé but specifics--and a sense of urgency. His TV ads in the early caucus and primary states identify him as the candidate with "the only plan that pulls every single soldier out of Iraq." As the contender with the most international experience--save, perhaps, hapless Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Joe Biden--Richardson says it is not merely possible but necessary to end the US military presence in Iraq and to replace it with diplomacy and targeted aid initiatives. Rejecting all the dodges of the frontrunners, Richardson argues, "If we are going to get out, we need to do it now."
Richardson's strategy, and his new ad featuring several well-known Netroots figures, also received coverage this week in The Washington Post, in a piece entitled, "Richardson Speaks to the Base." Chris Cillizza talks about Richardson distinguishing himself from the other candidates via his withdrawal plan, shows the new ad, and then discusses its possible affect:
The three voices in the ad -- Matt Stoller, Chris Bowers and Christine Siun O'Connell -- are all prominent members of the so-called "netroots", the loose coalition of bloggers and online activists that has rapidly emerged as a new (and vocal) constituency within the Democratic party over the last several years.

By putting these three individuals in an ad focused on his Iraq proposal, Richardson is hoping to generate buzz among activists, who pay close attention to the personalities of the netroots, not just in New Hampshire but nationwide. The netroots have proven to be a cash cow for candidates they unite behind, and Richardson -- like anyone in the field not named Clinton or Obama -- can use the money. But, more than money, Richardson's ad is a wink of sorts to the netroots; "I'm one of you," Richardson is subtly saying. . . .

Richardson is an underdog in the race and has to take chances if he wants to topple the big boys (and girl). Running an inside-the-box campaign ensures defeat for Richardson. These sorts of unorthodox moves might not get him where he needs to be either, but at least they show his campaign is thinking creatively.
Richardson's website features the full four-minute video from which the ad is culled. For those concerned about ending the war, I think it's an effective piece of campaign propaganda.

But does Bill Richardson really have any chance in this race?

The more reading and research I do, the more I think he does. It may be a slim chance, but there are several favorable signs. I've been going back and forth between Edwards, Richardson and (to some degree) Obama, but I recently decided to concentrate my financial support (which isn't much, to be honest) on Richardson alone. So I need to make that clear. Unlike previous posts, where I tried to refrain from pushing any of the candidates, this one can be seen as an endorsement. I'll continue to try and maintain objectivity when talking about the 2008 race, but at least you know where my money's going. It's still early, and I may change my mind, but until further notice, I'm supporting Richardson.

Richardson speaks with women in a refugee camp in the Darfur region, Janaury 2007

In my last post, I talked about the 1992 and 2004 campaigns for the Democratic Presidential Nomination, and where things stood in October-November of the previous year. Bill Clinton and John Kerry were both running in fifth place in the national polls, and were far behind in the early caucus and primary states. Richardson is actually in a better position in some ways than either of them were at the time, with strong, upward-trending numbers. Clinton and Kerry's numbers were much more up and down than Richardson's have been. Granted, though, the field of contenders this time is probably stronger than it was in 1991 or 2003. Richardson will probably need some help.

If Edwards and/or Obama falters, and Hillary struggles in Iowa, Richardson is well-positioned to take advantage of the situation. Hillary has huge expectations on her, so she needs to win in Iowa or at least come in a strong second place. At this point, Iowa is very close, though 2004 proved how useless looking at Iowa's numbers in October can be. Still, Hillary has the added disadvantage of her high unfavorability numbers - up to 48% in some polls. A lot of people seem to dismiss this aspect of her campaign, and I don't know why. How many times does it have to be proven that voters want to like the person they're choosing as President? Do we need to watch the first Gore-Bush debate again? We're in Iraq today in part because George W. Bush knew how to come off as a likable fellow, while Al Gore looked uptight and arrogant. JFK was cool and calm while Dick Nixon sweat like it was mid-summer under those huge television lamps. It's not rocket science. As silly as it sounds, the question about who you would rather have a beer with really does matter. I still believe this is Hillary's biggest weakness. A lot of people just don't like her - a lot of Democratic voters don't like her. She may raise huge amounts of money from major donors and party insiders, and she may lead in national polls, but that has always been based more on name recognition than anything else. Hell, Jerry Brown was running first in some national polls in late 1991, because he'd been in the public eye long enough. All that insider money and name recognition won't help Hillary at all if folks in Iowa don't think she's likeable enough or they're still angry about the war.

As far as Edwards and Obama, Edwards is already in trouble, with his poll numbers falling across the board and the SEIU, one of the most important labor unions, unexpectedly withholding its endorsement for him this week, which was a big blow to his campaign. He's done everything to court the labor vote - and they basically told him, "Uh, well, we're not so sure, John." Evidently they like Hillary's poll numbers better. And, of course there's the Clinton family tradition of supporting labor unions to consider. (NAFTA? what's NAFTA?!) Meanwhile, Obama has been the superstar fund-raiser, but his poll numbers haven't really moved much, which may mean he's reached a plateau level of support. I can see one of them, probably Edwards, being out of the race after Iowa. If Richardson can make a strong showing there, at least coming in third, he'll be in a great position.

Richardson won seven elections as a U.S. Representative and two as Governor. He won his first election as an unknown newcomer to New Mexico, against a popular opponent who was supported by Party insiders. The man knows how to campaign. He likes "retail campaigning" -getting out in the crowds, shaking hands, kissing babies, talking to folks - in much the way that Bill Clinton did. It energizes him. And it's worked for him well in the past.

Also, his extensive resume serves as a kind of deeply-planted foundation. Over the past nine months, I've talked about Edwards, Richardson and Obama to various people who weren't really sure who to support. I've noticed that most people don't know much about Richardson, but when I start talking about him, they respond quite favorably, mostly, I think because of his resume. He's not a hard sell. I'm especially thinking of the over-30 crowd. On the other hand, mention John Edwards, and if people don't like him, there's absolutely nothing you can do to persuade them otherwise. I think, in part, because he just doesn't have much to fall back on. What can you point to? His concern about poverty, which I think is genuine, is discounted by his detractors because of his giant house, or his hedge funds, or his $400 haircuts, etc. And if you don't believe in or care about his views on poverty, what broad political experience does he offer? I and others may distrust and dislike Hillary, but there's a grudging awareness that she does have experience and other necessary qualifications to be president. I don't think Edwards has that kind of solidity. And while people don't seem to dislike Obama, I've noticed he can also be a hard sell to people, primarily because of his inexperience. He's got a lot of vocal supporters, it's true, especially among younger voters. (And Oprah, of course.) But he seems more and more like the Howard Dean of this election. A lot of excitement, a lot of energy and media coverage, but where's it all going? What has he done that a 65-year old retired banker - who will make it to the polls to vote - can look at? What does he fall back on when his "Can't we all just get along" message fails? Three years in the Senate? Even Fred Thompson has more experience than that.

One of the most interesting aspects of this race so far has been Richardson usurping the Iraq war issue from Obama as the way to distinguish himself from the other candidates. Nobody was better set-up to channel the country's anger about the war as Obama was. Yet he's never been able to separate himself from Hillary on the issue, which is amazing, considering he was against the war and she supported it for so long. Credit has to go to her campaign for winning, hands-down, her most important battle against Obama. If they're the same, why would anyone vote for him? She has so much more experience. Meanwhile, Richardson, who initially supported the war (though he was never in a position to vote on it) has recognized how important the issue is - not just to get elected, but for the future of the country. He's pulled an end-around on the other three main candidates. Obama, in this regard, has looked like a rookie playing way out of position.

Richardson's debate appearances haven't been great so far, but I think this weakness is offset by four things: 1) As I mentioned, Richardson does very well in person, talking to real people. Old style - and still extremely important - campaigning. He's a big personality with a hunger to connect with people. 2) His television ads have been very successful, gaining him a lot of attention not just from the public but from the political analysts and media. His numbers started going up in Iowa and New Hampshire immediately after his first round of humorous "interview" ads. I would venture to say that far more people have seen his ads than have seen his debate appearances, which brings me to. . . 3) How many ordinary voters have watched any of the debates so far? 4) I don't think Richardson's problems in the debates - stiffness, awkwardness, not seeming natural enough at times - are long-term problems. From most accounts, he's very comfortable with himself in public. I think the more he does these debates, the more successful he'll be at them. I recently watched the Univision debate, and Richardson did quite well, though they refused to let him to speak in Spanish. (That debate had at least two amusing aspects: 1) Richardson introduced himself to the audience, speaking in Spanish until the uptight Univision hosts got all in tizzy. But he had made his point to a crowd that may not have even known he was part Latino. Finally, they got to the first question of the debate: What would you do to make Spanish the second language of the United States? My aunt and I sat on the couch and cracked up - "Well, you'd let the first Latino candidate for president speak in Spanish for one thing!" 2) This is politics: The Democrats make a big deal about refusing to appear at a debate sponsored by Fox News. Instead, they go on Univision, which is run by Cuban gusanos who are far to the right of Fox in some cases. Questions at the debate about Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez were outrageously leading and showed how right-wing Univision can be. Ah, but it's surrealism in a good cause, right?)

What about finances? Well, Richardson will never be able to compare with Hillary and Obama, but who can? He's said all along that he would have enough money to run the kind of campaign he needs to run, and if you look at what he's accomplished with much less money than his two main rivals, it's pretty impressive. Obama raises the big bucks but can't generate movement in the polls, whereas Richardson spends much less money and has steadily rising numbers. His well-made and well-timed TV ads have also spread around the internet to even more people. And if his numbers continue trending upwards, more money will come in.

It's a long shot, granted. But I don't think it's as unrealistic as people think.

I'll let Nichols conclude:
Richardson recognizes that it is his position on the war that is giving his candidacy traction. Of course, he's glad to discourse on how to tackle the crisis in Darfur and his concerns about Pakistan, and he's more than willing to detail his mainstream progressive positions on everything from gay rights to net neutrality. But the governor's antiwar position is now the primary focus of his media buys, his savvy campaign appearances and his aggressive new direct-mail fundraising appeals to liberal donors. That's smart politics. Richardson's Iraq stance is at once refreshing and reassuring for grassroots Democrats, who polls suggest are increasingly frustrated with the cautious approach of party leaders. In the former UN ambassador they get a candidate who knows his way around the world, who understands the delicacy of diplomacy, who actually negotiated with Saddam Hussein. . . . Richardson's résumé and his poll numbers assure him a place on the stage and an ability to keep prodding the frontrunners to clarify their murky positions on Iraq.

None of this means Richardson is on a fast track to the nomination. He's still playing catch-up in a brutal fundraising competition, and he remains a largely unexamined contender with his share of political baggage--the Energy Department's bungling of the Wen Ho Lee nuclear espionage scandal during Richardson's tenure is an embarrassing footnote, as is his post-Cabinet service on the boards of energy firms with troubling environmental records. But no 2008 Democratic candidate has come further on the basis of a bold stance on the essential issue of the race than Richardson. At the very least, he will make it difficult for Clinton, Obama and Edwards to continue dancing around the core questions of the war. And if the leading Democrats fail to make convincing moves toward withdrawal, Richardson is better positioned than any other candidate to ride that issue to the center of the competition.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Front-Runner

Believe it or not, October begins on Monday. Third quarter fund-raising numbers for the 2008 Presidential candidates will be released. And it’s just three and a half months before the primaries begin.

So what are analysts saying about the race for the Democratic nomination at this point? Let’s take a look:

Headline: “Clinton is the candidate to beat.”

Headline: “Clinton Appears To Be The Likely Nominee”

Headline: “Analysts And Insiders Say It's Looking Like Clinton.”

Zogby: “Given where we stand now, it's hard to see a way to stop Clinton, especially if she has a strong showing in Iowa, which she very well may have.” Zogby said Clinton swept all demographic categories, leading among all age groups, among union and non-union voters, and among self-described progressives and liberals. “This is stunning,” said Zogby. “This qualifies as juggernaut status.

Larry Sabato, Director of UVA's Center For Politics: Clinton is the candidate to beat. “Over the years, I have followed so many of these and watched the candidates and the numbers and everything. . . . I don't want to give my own Crystal Ball away, but Clinton is just running away with it. When you put all the factors together and weight them properly as I think we have done with this analysis, good luck to the others.”

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile: “I think if I were Clinton's campaign manger, I would feel comfortable now that for the last three months Hillary Clinton has been in the driver's seat.”
So, Obama, Edwards, Richardson, and the others gave it their best shot, but it looks like the Clinton Machine was simply too much for them. You wonder why they even bother staying in the race at this point?

Well, I can give you one very good reason: All of the above quotes and headlines were actually from October 2003, and they were all about Howard Dean.

Read back through the news coverage at this point in the last election and Howard Dean was the longtime front-runner, the “man to beat,” and Wesley Clark was stirring up things with his entrance into the race. In October 2003, Dean led the national polls, with Clark second, followed closely by Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman. (Remember Lieberman, Al Gore’s sublime choice for VP in 2000? A real, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, Joe was. We miss you, Joe!)

John Kerry was in fifth place and couldn’t even break into double digits, eking out a measly 9%.

But National Poll numbers are never as important as poll numbers from the individual primary states, analysts like to say. So, in October 2003, Dean and Gephardt were tied in Iowa, with 26% each. Kerry was struggling at 15%. John Edwards wasn’t listed anywhere, his numbers were so pathetic.

The results in January 2004? Kerry 38%, Edwards 32%, Dean 18%, with Gephardt a distant fourth.

In New Hampshire, in October 2003, Dean was running away with the race at 40%. Kerry was tanking at 17%. Wesley Clark and John Edwards were tied at 6%.

The results in January 2004: Kerry 39%, Dean 26%, Clark 12%, Edwards 11%.

I decided to look up these quotes and headlines about Dean after I saw the following Washington Post headline: "Clinton as the Insiders' Shoo-in." (“It's official: Washington insiders believe Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the Democratic presidential nominee.")

And, of course, the guy in the White house said this week that he thought Hillary would be the nominee. I don't know about you, but the last thing I would want as a candidate right now would be George W. Bush saying he thought I would be the nominee. Hillary's staff must have ordered a lot of extra TP after that little jewel came out in the media.

Hillary Clinton may indeed wind up as the Democratic nominee. But this is a funny world we live in, and I guess I still believe that in politics, as in football, anything can happen. That's why we still play the games and still hold the elections.

We'll know more in a few months.

UPDATE: Discounting the nomination process in 2000 (Gore was a sitting VP) and 1996 (Clinton's re-election), the next example of a contested nomination for the Democrats was in 1992.

Who was the front-runner in the fall of 1991? The guy who never ran: Mario Cuomo. A November 1991 national poll in the LA Times looked like this: Cuomo 38%, Jerry Brown 11%, Douglas Wilder 7%, Clinton 6%.

The Iowa caucus that year wasn't a factor, because Iowa's senator, Tom Harkin, was a candidate and no one else contested him there. New Hampshire was the first primary test. In November 1991, Bill Clinton only had 5% support, placing him fifth behind Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin and Jerry Brown.

The results: Tsongas 34%, Clinton 26%, Kerrey 12%, Harkin 11%, Brown 9%.

That's an especially impressive showing for Clinton, considering that the primary took place just as the stories of his infidelities were coming out.

Other intersting poll numbers from that time period:

Gallup Poll, Oct 91: Clinton Favorability

25% Favorable; 16 Unfavorable; 17 Heard of, no opinion; 40 Never heard of

Bush 58% vs. Clinton 22%

Monday, September 24, 2007

ZONE - Year One

I just realized this afternoon that I've been blogging for over a year now. My first post was dated August 29, 2006. (No one left a comment. . . . It's so cold out in cyberspace sometimes.)

At the time, I thought I would write about all kinds of things, and came up with the ambitious subtitle: "improvisations on literature : music : film : the spiritual : the political : the ridiculous." Looking back over the previous year, I see very little about literature, some on music, a lot on film, not much about the spiritual, some on the political and . . . well, the whole thing is rather "ridiculous," isn't it?

It's strange that I haven't written much on literature and spirituality, considering that these have been the two most important journeys of my life. Maybe, to quote 10CC, "it's just a silly phase I'm going through."

Maybe not. It's been a while since I've finished a novel. I read a bit of poetry here and there, but not nearly as much as I used to. Haven't been writing much of my own work. I do, however, have a poetry reading coming up this Sunday in Manhattan, with jazz musicians (!) - a longtime dream fulfilled. I'm looking forward to that. I even managed to come up with a new piece. But, all in all, literature seems to have fallen off my radar a bit. Perhaps I burned out after spending most of my energy over the previous seven years editing an international bilingual literary magazine, putting readings together, translating, writing grants, hosting events, etc. Je ne sais pas.

It's not like blogging has been easy and caused me to forsake the sweat and toil of poetry. I still find this the hardest writing I've ever done in some ways. My respect for good journalists, bloggers, and film reviewers has gone up immensely in the last year.

Anyway, just some musings. . . .

I have no idea idea where this blogging thing will go. I'm still struggling to find a certain voice in this somewhat strange format that demands both immediacy and thoughtfulness at the same time. My Dada Iraq post may have been the closest I've come to how I imagined this project. But that's life, no? Instead, I wind up writing weird reviews about obscure William Holden films. I didn't see that one coming.

The best part has been meeting and/or conversing with other people in the wide open spaces of our digital universe. My gift on this one-year blogging anniversary is all of you who've taken the time to read my posts and comment on them here or elsewhere. So thanks, Liam, Jeff, Crystal, Schertzer, Steve, Paul, Lawrence, and everyone else.

And most of all, to my muse (musette?) - Alexandra. La Reina de mi vida.

Meanwhile, here's a very profound and introspective song from my childhood to celebrate ONE. (OMG, I want those pants!)

Onward through the fog . . . .

Guillaume le fou

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Recent Screenings

I've been away for a while, traveling through the wilds of West Texas. Now I'm trying to catch up on all the films I've seen in the last two months. I'm not sure why I wound up writing about these particular movies and not others, several of which were better. But what are you going to do?

The Science of Sleep
(2006) - Written and Directed by Michel Gondry. Starring Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

I have to admit, I wasn't overly impressed with French director Michel Gondry's previous film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a highly regarded favorite among younger cinephiles. I appreciated some of the imagination involved but found it overly clever, emotionally thin, and a bit too Hollywood for my tastes. So I had mixed feelings going into The Science of Sleep. His new work, however, is a very different creature indeed. Gondry lets loose his obviously fertile creativity and delivers one of the most visually stunning and poetic movies I've seen in a long time. Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Babel, Motorcycle Diaries) plays Stéphane, a struggling cartoonist with a wild imagination who is part French and part Spanish (for once, a Mexican playing a Spaniard!). He returns to the Parisian home of his childhood because his widowed mother has promised him a job as the art director at a calendar company. He comes prepared with the mock-ups of a hilarious and disturbing calendar showing disasters for each month of the year. The job, however, is not what he expected.

Meanwhile, a pair of young French women move in across the hall, one of them an artist named Stéphanie, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Stéphane and Stéphanie are both somewhat shy, and they begin an interesting friendship based on their mutual creative imaginations. The most touching and enjoyable parts of the film are the scenes in which the two simply hang out together and come up with wild and poetic ideas that Gondry beautifully brings to life on the screen. Stéphanie fashions clouds out of simple material, and Stéphane makes them hang suspended in the air by playing certain notes on the piano. Cellophane water comes out of her kitchen sink.

Gondry goes even further with his amazing visuals in the ongoing and surreal episodes of "Stéphane-TV," in which the young artist hosts a hilarious TV show of his own mental life. Some of the funniest bits in the movie come out during these scenes. There are also several dream sequences, one of which features Stéphane flying over the various neighborhoods of Paris, presented as a series of marvelous pop-up buildings. It's a breathtaking sequence, and, like all of the effects in the film, was done without any computer-generated images. The DVD contains several "making of" extras that detail the extraordinary lengths Gondry went to in order to create his vusals, and they are worth watching, particularly an interview with the woman who designed several doll-like items for the story. Listening to her, and watching the film, one gets the sense that Gondry used the moeny he made from his Hollywood success to allow himself and his creative friends to make the kind of artistic and poetic film most people dream of making one day. Creatively speaking, it's a very inspiring project.

Unfortunately, the emotional and dramatic aspects of the film don't reach nearly the same heights. After a while, Stéphane's emotional immaturity seems more annoying than endearing. And though the film explores his relationships with Stéphanie, his mother, and others, it all feels a bit tacked on, with much less inventiveness or creativity in the writing than in the visuals. Gondry's background was as a director of music videos by Bjork, Massive Attack, and the Chemical Brothers. While this served him well in many ways, I'm not sure it was fertile ground for the emotional development of the people who populate his highly imaginative world. One hopes he can grow in this area and move towards the kind of combined visual and emotional power of Cocteau, whose films The Science of Sleep can vaguely echo at times.

The acting is good throughout, even if the characters all feel a little cartoonish. García Bernal does everything he can with Stéphane, infusing him with real life. And I do enjoy Charlotte Gainsbourg on screen, though I can't really tell you why. Daughter of the lovely English actress-singer Jane Birkin (Blow Up) and the ugliest sexy man in history, the famous French singer (and actor) Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte isn't beautiful or intense, and certainly can't be called a dynamic presence, yet she offers something very unique and appealing. La Reina said afterwards that Charlotte Gainsbourg always feels like a real person up on the screen, and perhaps that's her secret. She seems like someone you could easily know from everyday life, an interesting, intelligent and friendly young woman. That's actually a rare and valuable commodity in the world of film, and it will be interesting to see what she does in her career, especially being able to move in and out of English and French-language productions.

[NOTE: The day after I wrote this, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who's 36, suffered a brain hemorrhage and had to have emergency surgery. She had been having severe headaches for several weeks after a water skiing accident in the U.S. She's currently recovering in Paris.]

The Science of Sleep is a delightful and promising film. See it on a big screen if at all possible. RECOMMENDED.

Blood Diamond
(2006) - Directed by Edward Zwick. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly.

An intelligent and interesting action-thriller set in Sierra Leone during the civil war of the 1990s and involving various aspects of the diamond industry, from the multi-national corporations at the top to the poor Africans at the bottom who basically work as slaves to find the precious stones. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a South African smuggler-adventurer who's a harder, edgier, 21st century version of Bogart's "I'm only concerned about myself" figure in Casablanca or To Have and Have Not. Djimon Hounsou, in a wonderful piece of acting, plays Solomon Vandy, one of the Africans caught up in the Civil War and forced into slave labor, who happens to come across an amazing and rare blood diamond and buries it away deep in the jungle. Jennifer Connelly plays Maddy, an American investigative journalist who's trying to bring to light many of the nefarious aspects of the diamond industry and its links to the brutal civil war. Blood Diamond reminded me of The Constant Gardener in the way it analyzes the increasingly blurring roles of governments, corporations, media, relief agencies and others in a mostly EuroAmerican industry exploiting people in Africa. Only Blood Diamond is more of an action film than the other, which was fine with me. It goes on a little too long, perhaps, and feels a little overly earnest at times, but I appreciated the complex story and the development of the relationship between the white South African played by DiCaprio and the black African played by Hounsou. DiCaprio delivers an excellent performance, and I've pretty much completely reversed my initial bad impression of him as an actor. I was genuinely moved by his performance at the end of the film. Exciting action and socio-political themes. Wish that would become a popular genre. RECOMMENDED.

Hot Fuzz
(2007) - This is a fairly intelligent stupid film. A hardcore, overachieving London cop named Nicholas Angel is transferred to a sleepy English village because he's making his superiors look bad. He gets paired with PC Danny Butterman, a lazy dullard who spends most of his time watching cop films like Bad Boys II and Point Break. Life is so dull that Angel is reduced to busting underage teens at the pub (nearly half the clientele) and tracking down an escaped swan. But all is not what it seems in this perfect little village as a series of "accidents" begins to arouse his suspicion. Hot Fuzz spoofs and pays high homage to the buddy cop films that Butterman loves so much. The film gets fairly silly and the ending is outrageously over the top, but bored and alone on a Friday night, I found it pretty enjoyable.

Alvarez Kelly
(1966) - Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Starring William Holden and Richard Widmark.

William Holden owned the 1950s. Between Sunset Blvd. in 1949 and Bridge on the River Kwai in 1958, he had an incredible run of big hits and movies that are now considered classics. In 1956, he passed longtime box-office champ John Wayne to become the top-earning star in the world. (Wayne sent him a telegram on the occasion that said: "Sneak!") Then, in the 1960s, Holden lost his Hollywood mojo. His films weren't making much money and several of them were panned by the critics. It wasn't until The Wild Bunch in 1969 that he starred in another well-received film. The funny thing is, a lot of the movies from that lost era - The 7th Dawn, Paris When It Sizzles, The Key, The Horse Soldiers, and The World of Suzie Wong - have held up well over time, mostly because Holden had a knack for picking interesting, solidly-written scripts, even if the projects didn't go over well in their own day. Indeed, The Counterfeit Traitor, from 1962, is one of the most emotionally compelling spy films ever made, and one of Holden's greatest roles, period.

Alas, Alvarez Kelly isn't really one of those unheralded gems. Why? Because the script wasn't up to the same level. And Holden knew it. When he first met with director Edward Dmytryk, long before production ever began, Holden expressed concern over the script, and Dmytryk agreed with him. Despite several rewrites, it never quite worked. At one point during the filming, Holden, who was hungover and struggling with an unruly horse, tried to shove his script up the horse's ass, yelling, "That's where it belongs!" In retrospect, the screenplay isn't all bad. More than anything, it's too convoluted for its own good. Holden plays Alvarez Kelly, an Irish-Mexican rancher (there really were such things, as many Irishmen left the States to fight on the Mexican side of the Mexican-American War in 1848) who drives a large herd of cattle up into the U.S. to sell to the Union army. Towards the end of the Civil War, food has become increasingly precious to both sides. Richard Widmark, wearing a patch over one eye, plays the leader of a kind of Confederate Special Forces group called the Commanches. The South in particular was struggling to feed its troops, and Widmark kidnaps Holden and tries to force him to help the Commanches steal the large herd. Holden refuses, and the running battle of wills between the two men serves as the main undercurrent of the film. Frustrated, Widmark shoots off one of Holden's fingers and says he will shoot off the rest if he doesn't help. Finally Holden agrees, but he seeks revenge in part by becoming friendly with Widmark's lover, who is exhausted by the war and believes that Widmark will never marry her.

Holden and Widmark play roles we've seen them in before, but they have a good chemistry, and the tension between the two strong-willed men is developed well. The two actors actually became good friends during the filming, and it shows on the screen. Some of the subplots are unnecessary; others, such as the relationship between Holden and Widmark's lover, could've been developed more. The writers simply tried to do too much, I think, and could never really pull it all together. Still, I tend to like large, complex plots, and the idea of food being so crucial in the Civil War is an interesting one. There are some moderately good action sequences, especially towards the end. The title music at the beginning may rank as some of the worst in film history, but if you can get beyond the opening credits, it's not a bad film. Just not as good as some of the others Holden made at the time. His other Civil War film from that period, The Horse Soldiers, is superior, with he and John Wayne in their one appearance together, directed by John Ford. And don't miss The Counterfeit Traitor.

One Touch of Venus
(1948) - Directed by William A. Seiter. Starring Ava Gardner, Robert Walker, Eve Arden and Dick Haymes.

My God, Ava Gardner was beautiful. And what an amazing screen presence. Sexy, intelligent, and fun, she managed to seem both down-to-earth and sophisticated at the same time. Oh, yeah, and she could act. I already knew all of this in theory, but watching this silly comedy made me realize what a real star she was. Without her, this film would've been unwatchable. The movie seemed promising at first glance, with a Kurt Weill score, lyrics by S.J. Perelman (who wrote some of the early Marx Brothers films) and the humorous poet Ogden Nash, and a screenplay by Frank Tashlin, who has a strong cult-following among some cinephiles, though I've yet to figure out why. But Lubitsch this ain't. The script rarely rises beyond a fairly low level of intelligence and Hollywood sap. The story isn't bad: An ancient and mysterious statue of Venus comes to life after being kissed by a clerk in a large department store, causing all kinds of trouble. Robert Walker, who was so great in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, overacts in this comic role and becomes increasingly annoying as the movie goes on. Most of the secondary actors are dull and/or stuck with dull dialog. The only other good part of the film is Eve Arden, playing the cynical and sharp-witted secretary to the owner of the department store. She gets the only intelligent lines in the movie and delivers them with zest. Luckily, the movie is short and moves along at a pretty good pace. Too bad. In other hands, this could've a charming little film. As it stands, it's only worth it for marveling at Ava Gardner, who, granted, was well-chosen to play Venus, the Goddess of Love. Skip this and watch Mogambo instead, with her and Clark Gable sparring in the jungle (with Grace Kelly thrown in for good measure) under John Ford's direction. Ava was nominated for an Academy Award for that one.

Lemming (2005) - Written and Directed by Dominick Moll. Starring Laurent Lucas, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Charlotte Rampling.

Billed as a kind of Hitchcockian French film, Lemming also moves towards David Lynch country, though played straight. Laurent Lucas and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as Alain and Bénédicte Getty, a perfect young yuppie couple in some vague French suburb that looks American. Alain works at a high-tech engineering firm. One evening his boss comes to dinner with his erratic and mysterious wife Alice, played by Charlotte Rampling. The dinner does not go well, to say the least. Alice is way out there. She begins showing up at the office late at night when Alain is there alone, or at the house during the day when Bénédicte is by herself. Meanwhile, the perfect young couple discover a rodent in their kitchen plumbing - a lemming, which only lives in Sweden. How did it get there? What does it mean? There is a startling suicide. There is an accident that leaves Alain with a concussion and experiencing what seem to be disturbing and realistic hallucinations. Bénédicte starts having an affair with Alain's boss. One character seems possessed by the spirit of the suicide victim. Or is it all just Alain hallucinating? The director never makes it clear, and by the time the film was over, I really didn't care enough to try and figure it all out. There are a couple of freaky and suspenseful moments, and Lynch fans may enjoy watching a European flail at the Lynchian universe. I enjoyed watching Charlotte Gainsbourg. Then I yawned and went to bed.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Solving Life's Great Mysteries, One Step at a Time

Finally, after millennia of investigating one of the most profound metaphysical questions in human history, we get an answer. . . .