The Solipsism of Video

This week I attended a screening of “Daylight Savings” at Anthology Film Archives – a film my friend co-wrote years ago.  Writers for hire “come on board” and join projects, email their contributions off to California or someplace, and then move on as writers and professionals, and then sometimes the project gets done, and they stand up in front of the film as if it’s their own.

Goh and Goh.

Goh and Goh.

This particular film featured a lot of luscious music by the folk singer Goh Nakamura, and the question and answer session somewhat awkwardly included live performances by him and his co-star. Comparisons to “Once” were inevitable. I loathe hearing my own work misrepresented by lazy comparisons, but writing moves like glaciers and conversation moves like sled dogs, and I found myself, when describing the film to a friend later that night, calling it “sort of a Japanese-American ‘Once'”.

When Goh sang, it felt like a vindication of live performance over the power of video, Goh singing in front of his own image on the screen behind him. “You just sat through the movie, but now, lucky you, can see the real thing.”

But wait! If there was any doubt about the hegemony of video, I walked right into the proof of its omnipotence tonight.

On Orchard Street, in the heart of the Lower East Side, a landlord is trying to lure a new tenant into a space, and is posting a sign. Fair enough. Sprucing up a “for rent” sign only makes sense, but how do you persuade the passer-by that your space is 100% desirable? Or, more to the point, what do you say to the passer-by within earshot of the potential tenant in order to persuade him or her that this rental space is the land where small business dreams come true?

The solipsism of video.

The solipsism of video.

You show a video of the space, that’s what you do. Never mind that a video is completely pointless. The storefront itself is right in front of you. The interior space in question is brightly lit, and clearly visible through the glass facade. The only imaginable point to a video is to demonstrate that you know that a video is called for. The medium truly is the message.


I came home one night last week and immediately wikipedia-ed (that’s a verb by now, right?) the eminent abolitionist and U.S. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, making a beeline for his personal life. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know where I was, in a theater watching the Spielberg film “Lincoln.” Watching a $65 Million Hollywood movie written by literary heavyweight such as Tony Kushner, not to mention its cast, isn’t a pleasure we get very often.

The critics are saying that they nailed it, and they’re more or less right. Even the Village Voice and its circuit of weekly papers, whose critics live to be snarky about Hollywood, especially anything uplifting and affirmative about America, had to roll over and give it up for this movie.

Kushner says that he wrote a 500-page first draft (!), and that Spielberg unexpectedly chose the first 100 pages, the part about the fight for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, as the direction they were going with subsequent rewrites. It’s a credit to Kushner that the difficult juggling of congressional factions and timing of votes to coincide with events on the battlefield and possible peace offerings stays relatively clear throughout, and that the foggy moral choices Lincoln was forced to make stay front and center.

The political thriller of the early fall, “Argo,” courageously told a story of intrigue and action in which the goal was to not fire one’s gun, and “Lincoln” tells a story of a war-time president whose goal is to get a very profoundly moral amendment through the House of Representatives, whose factions oppose it on very different grounds, and not always entirely evil grounds. The timing of both films is incredibly canny. “Argo,” whose makers could not have known about the attack in Benghazi, spoke to liberals’ anxiety about whether Obama’s reelection would go down in flames Jimmy Carter-style. If I were a Mitt Romney partisan, I’d have wondered why we were watching THIS story and not the botched rescue mission that happened in April, 1980.

Likewise, “Lincoln” is the Obama Democrats are hoping for right now: a former Illinois senator, just recently reelected as president, with his loyal, more seasoned former New York senator/secretary of state at his side, with the U.S. Senate’s support in hand, twisting arms, bribing, and breaking rules to get the House of Representatives, which has just enough racists to keep the republic from making leaps forward, to bend to his political will and pass some visionary legislation. It’s such propaganda even I would be turned off, and I’m a supporter, if it weren’t so damn beautiful.

Denouement Number One. To keep in perspective about what these films really say about the zeitgeist, Both “Argo” and “Lincoln” together have not yet sold as much as “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2” just sold in its first week.

Denouement Number Two. One critic said Spielberg is “known for his multiple denouements,” which is just about the kindest way of saying what I feel about most studio films: The last forty minutes could have easily been cut to twenty minutes, and we would left the theater feeling the impact of the resolution much more deeply. “Lincoln” exceeded my expectations so often, that when his butler watches him walk alone down the long hallway of the Whitehouse, on his way to his carriage to Ford’s theater, it felt like the end, and I nearly cheered. Go Kushner! You’ve whupped Spielberg in line! Alas, there were ten more minutes.

“A Late Quartet”: Molto Eccessivo

I made a point of seeing “A Late Quartet” in the theater last night because my friend has a small part in it. Scripts that are set on stages of any sort – set in a theater troupe, a band, or a traveling circus – have a leg up on other stories, because the petty rivalries and hierarchies that define the characters come so easily, and finding activities for them to do while the viewer is digesting the action also comes automatically: just show them performing. It’s a cinch to create some intimacy between the viewer and the characters, because the moment we follow them offstage we become insiders. Then, as plot complications develop, the problems multiply naturally because characters react by going to other members of the inner circle, either for help or to settle old scores.

Kudos to Yaron Zilberman for the premise of this film, but I kept getting the feeling that he and co-writer Seth Grossman were blowing it. It feels like you’re watching a promising second or third draft that ought to be doing less.

The moment the Fugue Quartet, the four main characters, take stage in the first scene, I said “Uh oh.” A string quartet that includes Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, AND Christopher Walken? It’s the same feeling you get watching most Woody Allen films since around 1990: The cast are so well-known, you interact with them as celebrity spectacles as much as characters, and your expectations go out the roof. “I hope Walken pulls a shotgun out of his cello case,” I thought, but then it was time to get serious.

The basic story starts out strong. The cello player (Walken), who had been the teacher of the other quartet members at Julliard, gets diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s, and announces that he can only play for a short time longer. This starts a sequence of power plays between the other members and a young violinist, who is the student of two of the quartet’s members and the daughter of the other two.  The memorably smug and smarmy intensity the actor Mark Ivanir brings to the fourth member, the quartet’s founder, bodes well for us seeing more of him in major indie roles like this.

So far so good, but then the writers overdo it. The nest of inter-locking backstories gets exposed through clumsily obvious dialogue; why not save some secrets for the cast notes? When the characters get mad at each other, they hurl everything they’ve got, with lines like, “I did away with my other dreams!” Why not bury some of that in the subtext? When the daughter-student hollers, “I know what it’s like to grow up without a FUCKING MOTHER!” followed by a slap from said mother, I heard some cackles in the audience. I know Walken’s character is trying to slow the progress of Parkinson’s, but must he be taking medication in every scene?

I like movies like this, but the gushing reception they get from the critical establishment makes me despair for the state of cinema: Indie film A-list actors blessed by the spirit of none other than Beethoven! Many of the reviews, I might add, include unabashed musical puns. Do we need to guard the tradition of the ensemble film, and the notion that cinema itself is a high art, so vigilantly that we’re not allowed to call an overwritten script for what it is?

At the Cemetery

The best way to clear one’s head in a city has long been the walk in a park, and if it’s a park inhabited by dead people, all the better. Dead people scare most living people away, and give the rest of us the sense that we are visiting them on the day of their funeral, not on a day they were alive. It feels right to stay focussed, not speak out of turn, and to keep small worries in perspective. There is no sunbathing or frisbee, and very few children. At Green-Wood Cemetery in my part of Brooklyn, I once suggested to one of its board members that they start enforcing a dress code, but he seemed to think that was going too far.

A branch in Green-Wood, post-Sandy.

All this prohibitive decorum makes cemeteries priceless to the person who craves some quiet time.

It’s easy to spot a writer trying to compose a story with dialogue in another public place such as the train. He or she is distinguishable from the actors practicing their lines because, for one, the actors are usually prettier and more polished-looking, but they’re also speaking in one single voice while they mumble to themselves. The writer trying to juggle the tone and state of mind of the narrative voice AND each character participating in the story, stares deep at a tiny hunk of paper or a cell phone with her lower lip quivering. If he or she spoke out loud we’d take her for a schizophrenic, not an average narcissist. These people need rooms of their own, or some open space.

You can’t think a deep thought on the West Side Highway, with bikes and rollerbladers, and a de facto fashion show, whizzing by you. The writer in the West Village trying to take in winter sunlight while deciding if his ending is too predictable seems like he’d be S.O.L, but I digress – real estate! the most omnipresent and boring conversation in New York. The weather is more exciting, especially lately.

The dead don’t mind if you talk to yourself. And the little facts you know about them from their tombstones inspire you to write biography after biography as you walk by, priming the writing pump, like a warm-up lap before a soccer game. “This guy fought in the Civil War but his brother didn’t: Probably ran his father’s business.” “Died the same year as his wife, name sounds Scottish, I bet they were Presbyterians, and maybe that made her unhappy.” “Married an Italian: Wonder if they liked the Dodgers.” “Wife chose not to be buried here: Must have gotten remarried, or maybe she died in Florida. Bet the kids never liked the new guy. Sounds like an asshole.”

In Green-Wood yesterday morning, I was finally taking the time to let go of all the tension of the U.S. Election Day two days prior – and a day in between spent at Coney Island, where the projects were still without power ten days after Hurricane Sandy – and to start thinking comedy again. The first snow of the year added a bit of cruelty to those who are still suffering, but only made the cemetery more peaceful.

They give you a flyer when you enter Green-Wood now, saying that there are downed trees everywhere, be careful, you were warned. Most of the trees that went down were adjacent to asphalt roads, where half their roots are compromised.

Gigantic, dying trees, many of which were here when the inhabitants were alive, leave you with the impression that to the trees we are all just pups. “They teach so many things,” I stopped to muse, “including how to die with grace.” And right then, I shit you not, the tree behind me bends its limb down in the breeze, and drops a wet snowball on my head, right between my glasses and my cheekbone. Apparently they have a sense of humor too.

One grave of a guy named Theophile Kick described his death: “Aged 46 years. His sun set while it was yet day.” That was in 1878, and it’s likely that Mr. Kick had feelings about the Rutherford Hayes-Samuel Tilden election every bit as righteous and turbulent as my feelings about Obama-Romney. Voter suppression, Southern racists, Supreme Court intrigue, it’s a different set of characters in a familiar genre. But life goes on, and you have pages to write, until you die.