Monday, January 26, 2009

Thoughts on Villainy and Misanthropy: Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver

I watched Taxi Driver last night for the first time. Unsurprisingly, cinematic violence of the last three decades now makes perfect sense. Before every gun obsessed film there stands Travis Bickle, holster in tow, asking, "You talkin' to me?"

What I find so intriguing about Travis is our willingness to side with him, even after it becomes apparent (for me: during the coffee scene with Betsy) that he's totally psychotic. There have been endless impressions, references, posters, t-shirts, and general fanaticism over this character. So I have to ask: do we side with Travis because we feel sorry for him, or because we relate to him?

Villains are the personification of general misanthropy. In the last few years, the line has been blurred between purely good and solely evil through the undying commitment by filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers to write complex characters we're unable to jam into a neatly defined category. And then there's the recent development of characters who represent something so purely and simply evil (see: Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men) that we're terrified by our inability to see them as human. Lord knows, as children, the villains seem cooler in Disney movies. But perhaps that's because their stories are just more complex, and therefore, more believable.

Travis, on the other hand, is very human. He can't sleep, probably because he's suffering from post-traumatic stress, no doubt from his service as a marine in Vietnam. He's disgusted by the seediness of New York, and entranced by a beautiful young woman. And, when she rejects him, he spirals out of control, throwing everything into saving a child prostitute he meets by chance. Jodie Foster, in one of the most honest, genuine performances by a fourteen year old girl I've ever seen, reminds us that she doesn't want to be saved, which somehow makes us even more sympathetic to Travis' plight.

There's that word: sympathy. Do we really blame Aileen Wornos for murdering men in cold blood after she had spent year after year being raped and abused by them? Are we not so secretly rooting for Thelma and Louise, even though they are technically murderers? What about the bride, in Kill Bill? These are revenge stories. Then there are the more stylized criminals like Bonnie and Clyde. They're so cool, we want them to get away with murder. It's a counter-culture fantasy. Don't we all just wish we could steal a kagillion bucks and ride away into the sunset, wearing a cute beret? I sure do.

But, it's never that easy, unfortunately. In Hollywood, the bad guys have to pay for what they've done. Otherwise, how the hell would we know that we have to continue to toe the line and go to our job every day and remember to buy toilet paper when we run out? While the life of crime might seem glamorous, it sure doesn't end well.

Or does it?

[here be spoilers]

In the end, Travis survives his killing spree as a hero. What wigs me out the most is the "moral" high ground Travis seems to occupy, in his dedication to act as God and rid the streets of Manhattan of all its trash. What exactly is Scorsese trying to say here, in naming Travis as a hero? Is he pointing out the inherent racism and bigotry in our willingness to believe that there in fact is "trash" that needs to be cleaned? And if Travis is a point of interest, and heroism, are his actions justified? (Notably, in the original script, the two pimps and Iris' customer at the end are all black men . . . Scorsese changed this). Or are we meant to interpret the film as nothing more than a portrait of a deeply disturbed man?

Given the intense popularity of the film, and the iconic status of the character of Travis, I have to tell you I think there's more of Travis in us then we'd like to believe.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

10 Things I've Learned from Barack Obama

1. Stay calm at all times.

2. Work to unite, not to destroy.

3. Smile at your enemies.

3. Choose a spouse who supports and respects you.

4. Take responsibility for your vices.

5. Be a great parent (eventually).

6. Exercise.

7. Surround yourself with smart people.

8. Be gracious.

9. Be realistic and pragmatic.

10. Dance.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


For a season that is usually defined by stasis, my winter has been active—life changing, even: I went home for the first time in a year for nearly two weeks at Christmas. When I left New York I was soon to be unemployed, when I returned I had a new job in a completely different industry.

Georgia will always be home; it is my family seat, and to sit with my mom, younger brother, and dog and watch movies and simply eat a meal together as if we had never been apart is always a wonderful thing. We even took a trip down to Andalusia, the home of writer Flannery O’Connor, in Milledgeville, Georgia, which was unbearably beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. After moving to New York as a young woman, Flannery was forced to return to Georgia when she was diagnosed with Lupus, the same disease that killed her father. She was nursed by her mother, took care of Peacocks and other exotic fowl, and managed to write some pretty incredible short fiction and a few novels before she passed away shortly before her fortieth birthday.

But Flannery was salty and whip smart, and she managed to write despite her depressing situation. She wrote hilarious letters to her close friends and corresponded seriously with her fans about her Catholicism and the meaning of her fiction. I should find Flannery’s biography an inspiration, but being a girl from Georgia, standing at her gravesite, I couldn’t help but find the whole story of her life damnably sad.

Milledgeville is a beautiful town, not unlike the sort of small towns you’d expect to have seen thirty, even fifty years ago in rural America. The buildings are pre-war and gorgeous, the college unassuming and necessary, the people simple and quiet. Milledgeville’s one quirk, perhaps, is that right outside downtown there lies the mostly defunct sanatorium and mental institution, an early Bedlam for the ill and deranged (but most likely just strange) people who were sent to Milledgeville to live here from all over middle-Georgia. The beautiful brick buildings that once housed medical wards and dormitories for the tubercular and the mentally ill still stand empty, like abandoned castles on the hill. It’s a melancholy and foreboding place.

The South can also be ignorant, rude, and plainly disappointing. The simple experience of going to see a movie (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) a few days after Christmas can be ruined by a few high-school age children. Bleach blonde hair is scarce, and apparently an allowance to stare me down, openly, as if I were some wolf amongst sheep in the Roswell mall. The point, however, is this: I don’t go home to Georgia to take in its culture (although it can be fascinating, like Milledgeville’s) or its local color. I go to spend time with my family.

What I’m getting at here is a definition of home. I made the decision, a long, long time ago that I wanted to live in New York. Ask my mother. I made the decision when I was a little girl. But that decision was one made on hearsay and whim. It wasn’t until I had lived here for about five months, completely on my own, knowing not a soul, abandoned by my partner, without a job from Daddy to pay my bills, or a trust fund to secure my wellbeing that I made the absolute decision to live in New York. I made that decision when I was at the lowest of the low, when I felt the worst I have ever felt, when the only thing I really wanted to do was to flee as soon as I could to my mother’s open arms.

These are perhaps difficult feelings for native New Yorkers, or anyone who’s never lived a plane-ride away from home to understand. New York can be brutal. There are days when it literally kicks the shit out of me. I have wept on the subway from both physical and emotional exhaustion. I have run out of money, been laid-off, been thrown out with the trash, been belittled, underappreciated, insulted, and even scorned. And all the while I have persevered, wracking my brain, hoping to discover what the hell it is I want out of life and what the hell I need to do to get it.

And damn you, if you discourage anyone from doing what makes them happy or if you begrudge a person for taking their time to do it own their own. The process is what’s important. I may not love every minute of every freezing morning I haul my ass out of bed at seven a.m. and go to work, but I sure as hell appreciate the luck I have, especially since I’ve made it myself.

Obviously, this is all still a work in progress. But winter is a difficult season for me. I don’t deal well with snow and its frigid temperatures. The climate makes me want to pull the covers over my head and never leave my apartment. But on a night like this, when a plane went diving into the Hudson River and all 155 passengers somehow appeared on its wings, unscathed, and I watched the whole ordeal take place from my office window, I have to think there must be some sort of natural order to life. That every step I take is an indication that I am still walking.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

No Country for Old Men. Finally.

My holiday break was lovely. How was yours? By lovely I mean I finally had the time to watch last year's Best-Picture, No Country for Old Men. I know. It took me that long. There's a reason this blog is called "Dilettansia," yeah?

Full disclosure: I was pissed off when the Coen enterprise scooped up another Oscar, while the prolific Paul Thomas Anderson went yet another year without even an award for directing. (And the Coen brothers' bitchy and pretentious acceptance speech didn't help assuage my feelings, either). For some reason, these two films continue to spark debate amongst movie-buffs as to who really holds the title of best film of 2007. And mythology surrounding the war is endless: Apparently, one day, during shooting in West Texas, the Coen Brothers had to halt production when a large cloud of black smoke filled the sky. The smoke had wafted over from Anderson's set for There Will Be Blood, when he was testing some pyrotechnics.

I think it's a sign that great films like these come along so infrequently that our reaction is to immediately pit them against each other.


Llewelyn Moss, played by the ever-enigmatic Josh Brolin, stumbles upon the aftermath of a shoot-out in the middle of the desert, leaving all but one man dead. In what seems like a twisted sense of logic, he steals the reason for the massacre, an abandoned big black bag . . . full of money. What ensues is a chase to the death. Anton Chigurh, not-so rightful owner of the cash goes after Moss, closely followed by the Sheriff, a whithered sage played by Tommy Lee Jones. In pure Coen brothers finery, the three main characters never appear together in a single frame.

Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh makes him literally unrecognizable, largely due to what may be the worst haircut of all time. Let's just take a moment to remember Javier in his natural state, accompanied by the proverbial icing on the cake, Penelope Cruz.

That's enough of that interlude.

Now, most Coen brothers films are inspired by (some loosely, some not so much: see O Brother Where Art Thou) by the Greek myths. This film, on the other hand, is a realistic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same title. But perhaps this film tackles the greatest mystery of all.

No Country for Old Men
, like most Coen Brothers films, does a lot of talking but very little explaining. And this, my friends, is a good thing. I don't know about you, but I'm sick and tired of movies that treat their audiences like complete idiots who need the actions of every character to be justified and every plot point deconstructed to the point of obsession. Here's the deal: if you want to make violent movies, about psychopaths and the people who get in their way, take some pointers from the Coen brothers. Because, usually, violence is, in itself, senseless. What makes Anton's character absolutely terrifying (aside from the fact that his weapon of choice is a cattle gun) is his complete mystery and total, relentless drive to just. kill. things.

After my first viewing, which was my brother's second, we pondered the message of the film. He mentioned that in a Q&A he had seen with a film professor at college, that the "meaning" of the film was largely symbolic. That Anton, in his calm, determined task to kill whatever gets in his way, purely by chance (he uses a coin at times, a la Two/Face--"call it," he says) is simply a manifestation of death, that will never stop coming for us, no matter what we do.

This is, perhaps, the most terrifying subject for a film, in that what makes very little sense in the movie makes even less sense to us as people. That life is something that we struggle through at every juncture, that every decision we make, whether it be out of pride, necessity, or lust, damns us to our fate. It is inescapable. We cannot pay it off, we cannot cheat it. That the one and only promise we're made in this life is that it ends.