An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Friday, January 30, 2009

A reckless, unreliable prognostication

So far, most of the chit-chat about the upcoming Watchmen adaptation has centered on two things: (1) the legal horse-race between Fox and Warner Bros over ownership rights, and (2) the question of whether or not the movie will, like, totally suck.

I'm not really interested in that question, since I'm neither fanboyish enough to get defensive of the comic nor gullible enough to be taken in by the movie's faux-prestige hype (the best part is when the trailer tells us that Zack Snyder is a "visionary"—what a fucking joke). But there is an idea that's been rolling around in my mind-grapes, that I haven't really heard proposed anywhere, and so I'm gonna lay a bold prediction on you. It probably won't come true, but on the slim chance that it does, you heard it here first:

I think that Watchmen could be a disastrous commercial flop.

Okay, maybe not "disastrous." I shouldn't push my luck here. But I think there's a real possibility that the movie could seriously underperform at the box office. And if it does, that could be a major game-changer in this whole superhero new wave that won't go away. A couple of points to support this claim:

Superhero fatigue is bound to set in sooner or later. There's no way the American public is going to eat this stuff up continuously for all eternity; it's only a matter of which movie will push them over the edge. I submit that that movie could well be Watchmen. 2008 was an almost absurdly loaded year for superhero fare, and after the record-breaking success of The Dark Knight the only way to go is down. The "fatigue" phenomenon isn't new; it happened with Vietnam War movies in the '80s, when America was so burned out on Vietnam that it almost totally ignored Brian De Palma's Casualties of War, despite the fact that the film starred one of the biggest box-office draws of the decade in Michael J Fox.

The vast majority of movie-going Americans are not inherently interested in superheroes or revisionism thereof. Watchmen is banking on the notion that people are "ready" for Alan Moore's deconstruction because of the success of all these Marvel and DC films. But you know what? People don't go to those movies to see "superheroes." They go because they want to see big summer action flicks with famous movie stars in them doing cool stuff and playing recognizable, culturally iconic characters. And let's get real: Watchmen ain't got either the stars or the iconic characters. I mean, the biggest name in the cast is Billy Crudup, and while Mr. Crudup is a very good actor, he doesn't exactly put asses in the seats. The only movie so far with non-established superheroes to do well was Hancock—and that was Will Smith, the biggest movie star in the world, on his annually-pwned 4th-of-July weekend. Something tells me we're not going to be seeing any McDonald's tie-in deals with little Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl happy meal toys. The mainstream appeal of superheroes, insofar as there is any, is about brand recognition. There's really nothing to hook in non-fanboy viewers here, except for a massive ad campaign, but that didn't work for Speed Racer and I don't think it'll work here.

I'm probably wrong. But what if I'm right?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

United States of... Whatever?

It's difficult to approach Showtime's new series The United States of Tara with anything like an objective eye, given the massive clusterfuck of hype, backlash and anti-backlash that series creator Diablo Cody still carries with her from the Juno fallout. That said, I tried to set aside my distaste for Cody's public persona (which I find more objectionable than her actual writing; take this recent interview by Alan Sepinwall, in which she says at least a couple of eye-rollingly stupid things) and give the new show a chance, on its own terms.

Mostly, I like it. I've seen the first three episodes, and so far the show is breezy and highly watchable and maybe has potential to be something more. I do have some qualms, though. They're more nagging annoyances than major flaws, but I'll list them here just the same:

•I'm not sold on Toni Collette's performance. She's fine as Tara, but as the "alters" (multiple personalities) she seems way too actor-y and over-the-top, more like a precocious high school theatre kid's conception of Dissociative Identity Disorder than a stab at the real thing. Of course, it's defensible that the alters wouldn't be realistic depictions of their respective identities ('50s housewife, gruff male trucker, slutty teenager) because Tara has never been any of those things. But Tara also isn't an actress, and I have trouble buying the idea that an average sufferer of DID would have such theatrical identities.

•This is related to the first qualm, but I'm slightly uncomfortable with the show's treatment of DID in general (thus far). It feels a bit too glib and played for comedy. I admit that this reaction stems partly from my issues with Juno's flippant treatment of teen pregnancy (the worst part of that movie is the scene where Juno decides against having an abortion because of 15 seconds of clicking pens). I can see that the show is trying to examine the disorder's impact on the family, at least, so there's reason to believe this qualm will go away.

•Why the hell is the show set in Kansas? None of the actors talk like they're in Kansas. There are no signifiers at all; we could've easily assumed the family lived in California until the setting was explicitly stated in episode 3. I think it's safe to assume that Cody and the other writers know fuck-all about Kansas. So what's the point, other than to take potshots at closed-minded middle America?

•Not really a qualm, but an observation: Juno haters will be glad to see that Cody's stylized dialogue has been toned down a lot, probably due to her being part of a writing staff rather than sole wordsmith. So far only one line has really irked me, and it was a pop culture reference. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with pop culture references in comedy, but they bring two dangers: (1) overusing them and (2) not doing them convincingly. Cody's been guilty of both, but in this case it was (2). I don't buy for a minute that anybody's mom, even a relatively cool mom like Tara, would make a fucking Small Wonder reference in conversation with her husband. And it wasn't even funny in context. Diablo, I like your show, but you are NOT good at pop culture references.

Anyway, that's it. I feel bad for focusing on the negative, but there's actually not that much to say about the positive attributes of the series so far. I will say that I really like the character of Tara's effete, awkward, probably-gay son. The young actor playing him will remind people of Michael Cera, without the reliance on stylized mumbling and before Cera became a tired brand-name and a party-pooping little jerk. Oh, and the show's supporting cast is well-stocked, with such awesome folks as Patton Oswalt (playing the dad's landscaping partner/buddy), Tony Hale (as an uptight teacher), and Rosemarie Dewitt (as the unsupportive sister). It's worth checking out—even if you hated Juno.

I wouldn't want to do that to the world

This video is amazing, but it has the unfortunate (if apropos) side effect of getting the original song stuck in your head for hours/days/eternity:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Huh. We now live in a world in which Philip Roth still breathes but John Updike doesn't. Weird to think about. I can easily imagine the two men—born a year apart, in 1933 and 1932 respectively—joking with each other about who was more likely to kick the bucket first. The Jew and the gentile, Nathan Zuckerman and Rabbit Angstrom, the two great termite-art realists of the postwar era. I recall a passage from one of the Zuckerman books in which Nathan (Roth's fictional stand-in) receives a piece of salacious mail intended for Updike. I think it is safe (and funny) to assume this really happened. Confession: I haven't actually read an Updike novel. A few short stories here and there, which I honestly wasn't crazy about; suburban marriage trouble is not a subject that holds great fascination for me, at least not in and of itself. But I've got an old copy of Rabbit, Run sitting on my bookshelf. It's been there for years. Maybe now's the time? After all, Updike was gracious enough to appear on The Simpsons ("Shut up, Updike!") which is more than we can say for grumpy old Roth.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


This isn't a political blog, but I absolutely could not let this item pass without comment. Don't worry, it's movie-related.

As part of Rod's recent and ongoing media blitz, he compared his situation to the lynch-mob persecution of horse rustlers in the Old West. Now, Blago doesn't get specific (although he claims to be a great fan of Westerns), but I happen to know that he is in fact referring to William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident, based on the famous novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. The film, which stars Henry Fonda in a role that prefigures his conscientious juror in 12 Angry Men, is a rather preachy if effective message picture about the dangers of mob action.

Now, you can probably guess the basic story: several men from an Old West town plagued by cattle-rustling form a posse and accuse three people of stealing the livestock. The townspeople have no proof to back up this accusation, and their blind stubborn certainty leads them to hang the strangers, despite the protests of a small minority of doubters led by Henry Fonda. The movie's final scene is actually quite powerful and non-hokey, as Fonda—framed by director Wellman such that the brim of another man's hat obscures Fonda's eyes the entire time—recites a letter written by one of the condemned men to his wife. The content of the letter shames all the men into silence, but the deed has already been done. The whole scene is up on YouTube, and can be viewed here:

It doesn't take a genius to see that this bears no resemblance whatsoever to Blagojevich's case; if the posse'd had the condemned men ON TAPE TALKING ABOUT STEALING THE CATTLE and about how dumb it would be NOT to steal the cattle—"it's a fuckin' valuable thing!"—then maybe he'd have a point. But it does reveal something kind of fascinating about how Blagojevich sees himself, as a victimized martyr for justice. In Blago's fantasy world, a gentle-voiced Henry Fonda will absolve him with homilies about justice and conscience—but if he had any conscience to begin with ("a piece of the conscience of all the men who ever lived"), he wouldn't be facing impeachment and possible jailtime right now.

If we're talking Westerns, our governor has more in common with the greedy bastards in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or the weaselly hotelier E.B. Farnum on HBO's Deadwood. Or, given Blago's apparently off-the-charts level of self-delusion, we might compare him to the most tragically deluded character in all Westerns: John McCabe (as played by Warren Beatty) in Robert Altman's staggering masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There's also a whole subset of Westerns about corrupt town bosses that Blagojevich might want to take a look at. What I'm saying is, he picked the wrong one. If Blago were a character in an old white-hat/black-hat cowboy movie, it's pretty clear what color hat he'd be wearing.

Which He Claimed Was Medicine

I realize that writing about a dream you had might violate blogging etiquette, but this one's relevant: I dreamt last night that I was killed by some Nazis, and the head Nazi agent who did it was—Liam Neeson. Yup, Schindler himself! What's up with that? I mean, it wasn't the actor Liam Neeson; Neeson was playing the Nazi character, except I was really me and I died. He poisoned me with a needle in the arm, which he claimed was medicine. Mr. Neeson was very convincing as the Nazi though he did not, to my recollection, affect a German accent.

Friday, January 23, 2009


I just found out that Jerry Lewis will receive an honorary Oscar at this year's ceremony. That almost makes up for my grievances about the nominations! Although, no disrespect to Jerry's humanitarian work, which is commendable and all, but I can't help but feel sore that the award is for that instead of his legendary emulsion-licking.

I'll take this occasion to paste the famous (ok, not that famous) opening sentences of Jerry's book The Total Filmmaker:

“Film, baby, powerful tool for love or laughter, fantastic weapon to create violence or ward it off, is in your hands. The only possible chance you’ve got on our round thing is not to bitch about injustice or break windows, but to make a concerted effort to have a loud voice. The loudest voice known to man is on thousand-foot reels. Campus chants about war are not going to help two peasants in a rice paddy on Tuesday. However, something might be said on emulsion that will stop a soldier from firing into nine children somewhere, sometime. Now, next year, five years from now. Try emulsion instead of rocks for race relations and ecology. That, and love and laughter, has to be what it’s all about. Then you’ll survive. Maybe we’ll all survive. Maybe.”

If the Oscar people could read that, they'd be like, wow, we should given this man one of these a long time ago. And they'd be right!


Monday, January 19, 2009

Explanations, investigations

Greetings, internet chums and anonymous wayfarers.

Allow me to begin this new blogging enterprise with an explanation of its title. "Strictly from hunger" was an idiom of 1940s America, appended to a sentence in order to express that an act was done solely out of desperation or financial need. I first came across this oddly musical phrase in a blog post by hilarious author Jack Pendarvis, and only a couple of days later I heard it uttered in the excellent 1942 gangster drama Johnny Eager. Was this synchronicity a sign of something? Of course I'm aware of the principle that after we learn a new word, we think that word is suddenly popping up all around us even though really it was there all along and just wasn't on our radar. But a forgotten expression from the '40s? Surely I was meant to adopt this phrase and use it as the title of a new blog. Surely.

The provenance of "strictly from hunger" is rather ambiguous, and as always, the internet both sheds light on the subject and adds to the confusion. This gentleman on the "Phrase Finder" message board seems to think it originated as beatnik slang before being adopted widely in the '70s as a catty dismissal of low-rent fashion. This would seem to contradict the observations of Mr. Pendarvis and myself, who have happened upon the phrase in numerous 1940s Hollywood films. A fellow over at the always-enjoyable Everything2 doesn't have a lot of information, but he does point out that "Strictly From Hunger" was the title of a 1937 collection of writings by the esteemed American humorist S.J. Perelman, a noted "idiom collector." Tantalizingly, the New Yorker offers the abstract of a 1944 story by Decla Dunning called "From Hunger"; the abstract contains the full phrase "strictly from hunger," but a paid membership is required to read the whole story. A jaunt over to IMDb informs us that Ms. Dunning wrote for the movies during the '40s as well. Her credits include the Orson Welles noir The Stranger (generally regarded as Orson's least personal and least notable film as director) and a Eugene O'Neill adaptation that I can only assume is misleadingly titled. Many google hits lead to info about a rare 1969 album by obscure psychedelic rock band Hunger, titled you-know-what.

Where does all of this take us? I don't know. I intended to write a brief introductory explanation and ended up flinging myself to the far corners of the internet in pursuit of some elusive information that is likely not interesting to anyone but myself. I'm left with the impression that the phrase is pretty elastic and, while it has had the connotation I described at the beginning of this post, it can also just mean general things like "bad" and "cheap." Maybe I should try to track down that S.J. Perelman book. In the meantime you and I can both enjoy this blog, which I promise will never again be so focused on lexicography. I'll leave you to chew on this: I am an unemployed recent college-grad in the toughest economic times since the Depression, so I guess you could say this blog is, in fact.......strictly from hunger. Thank you, thank you, I know I'm clever, thank you, you're too kind.