Thursday, February 17, 2005

Like a Daily Show skit, only real...

From the News that Originated in the Blogosphere Dept., No. 49,039.

Today, Frank Rich and MoDo blew the lid off the Jeff Gannon story, a few days after Howie Kurtz wrote on it. You can't make this stuff up. If you hadn't heard about this, click on the Rich link for the synposis.

Of course, for anyone who still follows the liberal blogosphere, this has been an ongoing saga, far and away the single most buzzed-about topic on the Daily Kos, for example. And AmericaBlog appears to be the dumping ground for all Gannon-related info. I hadn't had much interest in this story at first, initially thinking that it's another unwelcome instance of the blogosphere's transformation from news watchdog to a lynch mob looking for reasons to hang idelogically-incorrect journalists. But this guy's news organization isn't even "real": it's a Repug propaganda arm. And this Gannon dude -- nevermind the gay hustler stuff -- was at the White House throwing softballs at the press secretary even before his "news" outfit, Talon News, was even created. Do you suspect that maybe...this guy is a...fake journalist? Oh, this White House would never pay off journalists, would they? Well, yeah. On top of reports that pundit Armstrong Williams got paid hundreds of thousands to shill for No Child Left Behind, this new story shows that this White House has no respect for the boundaries between the press and government. Yet another shining example of the Bushies respect for "freedom".

The word fascism should never be thrown around lightly, but this White House, in their audacious quest to create their own reality, resembles more and more the regimes described by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Coke, Marx, and random killings

I'd been curious to revisit Masculine Feminine (A), re-released by Rialto in a new print and a new translation, because it's the movie most responsible for turning me on to Godard. When I last viewed Godard's paean to the "Children of Marx and Coca-Cola," I was 18, and like many teenagers, perhaps a little too romantic, naive, idealistic, and impressionable. It was my second Godard, after Breathless, and my fourth or fifth French movie. But I remember loving the go-for-broke exhilaration of Godard's style then, that intoxicating cocktail of romantic ardor and political theory, all told in that fractured cinematic syntax that promises, in each next moment, something you'd never seen before or even expected. They're movies that embody the youthful spirit, the newfound freedom and limitless possibilities of young lives. But as a grizzled, jaded thirtysomething, movies that make references to texts I know excite me less and "academic exercises" bother me more. Discipline, rigor, and classicism have earned my respect; bold but retarded experiments have ceased to impress. Moreover, Godard's recent movies have taken on the resigned tone of an old curmudgeon, rapid-firing cryptic aphorisms and undigested political axioms to diminishing returns. In short, over the last year, I've begun feeling some doubts about that early love for Godard, that it might've been like that obsessive high school crush on an unremarkable lass that seems completely embarrassing in retrospect. Curious whether my love for Godard was just a passing fancy, I've re-watched some of my favorite Godards on DVD in the last year -- Contempt, Vivre sa vie, Band of Outsiders -- and thankfully they've each more than held up. During these viewings, I'd be invariably reminded of why I love movies. In looking back, I'd say that Godard, at least his unsurpassed 1960-67 run, is the filmmaker most responsible for my cinephilia. But the fear that these movies are meant for college age digestion lingers: the re-release of A Woman is a Woman I found somewhat disappointing. I was still excited by Anna Karina and Godard's experiments with image and sound cutting, but the movie itself seemed a little callow, the politics arch and shallow. It seems to me the work of an ingenious bluff-artist.

I'm glad to discover that Masculine Feminine is still sensational, and more prophetic than I'd realized. On paper the movie sounds tedious: taking off from the title, the entire movie is structured as a dialectic. On the masculine side: political militancy and resistance, sexual aggression, high art. One the feminine side: political apathy, teasing sexuality, pop culture. Godard organizes the movie using 15 chapter headings, some typically pretentious and nonsensical, and has as its centerpiece three lengthy interrogations, with men questioning women in tight, cramped quarters. What makes it all work is first Jean-Pierre Leaud, who lends his self-serious dillettante Paul a playfulness that keeps things light, as with the child-like delight on Leaud's face when Paul starts recalling his dad discovering why the earth revolved around the sun or the whimsical Bach humming that ends the scene. But most of all, what makes this exhilarating instead of tiresome is Godard's sense of play. He sprinkles the movie with nonsequitur killings and suicides that seem just absurd at first but foreshadow the tumult and failures that await that generation's young French leftists, pre-'68. The radical experiments in sound that intercuts loud, disruptive street noise and random conversations with pop music (a dialectic of sound -- reality colliding with pop) that still feels innovative today, if a tad annoying. And of course, what's a Godard movie without movie references, like playful nods to Pierrot le fou, The 400 Blows, and Contempt. From Chantal Goya's pop ditties to the stylish sweater sets and tweed coats to the high contrast black & white[1] and the hilarious throwaway humor (the old men taking turns reading erotica out loud at the cafe, Paul and pal yelling out bra-slogans in the laundromat), elegies to the left have never felt so fresh and fun and cool.

And in the end, this movie is an elegy, portending the triumph of the Pepsi generation over the Adorno kids. This farsightedness saves it from the film's central flaw, the pervasive misogyny that courses through the film. It's true the women are portrayed as the more sophisticated and skilled combatants in the battle of the sexes -- whereas the men are immature boors who just want to touch some tits and get into girls' pants, the women prolong the men's agony so the women can get what they want. But Godard still associates femininity with pop vacuity. The centerpiece, a lengthy, probably improvised interrogation by Paul of a "Consumer Product" (the "Miss 19" winner), exemplifies the scathing treatment of female ignorance in an era of heightened political consciousness. Typical exchange: "Tell me in what places are there wars going on right now." "I hadn't thought about it." Women are already commodities, the film suggests. Miss 19 is a "consumer product", Madeleine the pop singer is a producer of records to be sold. The young men resist while the young women submit to pop capitalism. But however schematic and ill-advised the sexual division, the film remains quite prescient. By 1965, when this movie was made, Godard had already sensed just how deep the "American way" has burrowed into the consciousness of the young, even the young French. Serious young men like Paul, the film hints, can't survive this age of commodification and reification.

Maybe Godard couldn't either. But before he turned into a crank (turning out movies that are all dialectics and literary allusions with none of the fun), JLG was in the throes of an effusive cinephilia that makes these early films a blast. Appropriately, the film's best scene is at the movies, when Paul leaves the hilarious Bergman parody to chew out the projectionist for projecting in incorrect aspect ratio. Paul comes back and ruminates in voiceover that "the movie [he's] watching is never the movie [he] wanted to make, which is never the movie [he] wanted to live." Whenever I watch one of Godard's early masterpieces, the opposite is exactly I feel: this is the movie I would have loved to have made. And this is the movie I would've loved to have lived, if only for a year or two.

[1] Please use yellow subtitles next time when restoring a b & w Godard film from the Sixties. The white on white subtitles were a pain. Thank you.

Monday, February 14, 2005

My Valentine with Ms. P.

Did you know that pressure to dazzle your date on Valentine's Day cause a large number, possibly as many as "half of dating couples" (yeah right) to break up? Neither did I.

Whatever the merits of that article, it's a relief that my sweetheart doesn't give a whit about Valentine's Day. Sparing me the stress of a V-Day pressure cooker, we instead went for a casual non-V-Day dinner last night at Shiro, a long-established Franco-Japanese fusion joint famous for its sizzling catfish in ginger and ponzu sauce, situated in unpretentious South Pas. That catfish didn't disappoint, and neither does Jonathan Gold, whose recommendation I took. Gold's the best reason to read LA Weekly, no small feat considering that John Powers, David Corn, Scott Foundas and Ella Taylor also write for that publication. But Gold's the man, and his pieces describing his trek to get the perfect boba in West Covina and bun cha gao in Eagle Rock are a joy to read. This week's smackdown on a trendy new place on Melrose is a model of gentlemanly viciousness:
"But Meson G’s gratin is just dreadful, made not with fresh cream but with a heavy, cheesy bechamel sauce, spiked with slippery, half-raw slivers of shiitake mushroom and garnished with green snips of the herb shiso that might as well have been grass clippings, so muted was their scent. The sea urchins themselves were visible but not palpable, like holographic projections of themselves."

I'm feeling the burn from 20 miles away. According to last month's Believer piece on Manny Farber, Gold's Counter Intelligence ranks with Farber's Negative Space, Robert Christgau's Consumer Guides[1], and Pauline Kael's collected volumes as a key text of contemporary pop criticism. I don't think restaurant reviews hold up as a consumer guide over time, since the quality of restaurants often decline over time due to personnel changes or just inertia. But food critics have greater influence on a week to week basis than any other critic, it seems. A restaurant review may make or break a restaurant. One rave review in the New York Times, and you'll have at least a few thousand eager customers waiting to sample the food. And those customers lead to word of mouth which can sustain an eatery for years. By contrast, no single film or record can be "made" by a superlative review nowadays. A terrific notice in the Times doesn't necessarily make your African circumcision movie a hit, and plenty of 9.4 albums on Pitchfork go unnoticed. More important to a film or record's commercial success than good reviews is an expensive marketing campaign, and for indie rock records, the support of college radio DJs. For restaurants, nothing except maybe celebrity attendance beats a good review in a major publication.

Oh, man, what a digression. How did I end up on food critics? What I've been meaning to write is I'm gonna be spending the night with my mistress, Ms. P. Who, or what, is Ms. P? They happen to be my new wheels, the Motor Trend Car of the Year for 2004, and Automobile's 2004 winner for design. Yeah, the Prius is an eco-car, but it's also got the space-age gadgetry that makes it decidedly not like eating your broccoli. It's a hybrid that's fun to drive, and as a bonus, it's beating that bloated Zepplin-mobile, the motherfucking Hummer off its fat ass on the market. You have to be a driver in LA to truly experience just how fucking annoying those monstrosities are.

[1] Christgau's Consumer Guides are fine, but am I alone in finding his annual Pazz & Jop summaries intolerable? Rambling, full of Moses-like pronouncements, random bits of provocations and would-be bon mots barely strung together by transitional clauses, these essays exploring the musical zeitgeist -- which invariably call out the poll participants for their insularity and/or racism -- should be taught in journalism class as prime example of indulgent alt-weekly sanctimony.