Jonathan Lethem — Gun, with Occasional Music

The January movie trades were abuzz with news that a screenwriter has been picked to adapt Jonathan Lethem’s first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, for the Polsky brothers, Gabe and Alan. For those unfamiliar with the young producers—30 and 33, respectively—they were behind Werner Herzog’s re-imagining of Bad Lieutenant, creatively called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Didn’t see it? Me either, mostly because it starred Nicolas Cage whose good movie-to-crap ratio has gotten completely out of whack—still, it is a ballsy proposition to willingly go up against Harvey Keitel’s performance as the original (very, very, … very) bad lieutenant.

As for the book, one of my favorite things about Lethem’s work is the sense of fun he imparts when playing with the expectations of genre. Gun takes the noir of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and fuses it with the dystopian science fiction of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, with a little William S. Burroughs thrown in for leavening.

The life of Gun’s protagonist, futuristic flat foot Conrad Metcalf, gets complicated when his client on a simple peep job ends up murdered. The problem compounds exponentially when the number one suspect, after Metcalf himself, shows up to hire the detective to find the real killer.

This brings unwanted heat from the Inquisitor’s Office, an all-seeing, not-so-secret police force that has the power to remove “karma points” from citizens as they see fit. To let one’s karma fall to zero is to become a non-person and awards the unlucky a trip to the (literal) freezer. Further complicating matters, is the fact that everyone is hooked on the government-supplied drugs “Forgettol” and “Acceptol” which makes getting a straight answer from anyone an interesting challenge.

Not satisfied with a run-of-the-mill paranoid run through one of our possible paths, Lethem ups the ante with super-evolved talking animals, including a gun-toting kangaroo (inspired by a Chandler quote reproduced at the top of the story), a concubine sheep, and disturbing “babyheads,” human toddlers who have had the same mutagenic fast-forward applied to them, making them little alcoholic fatalist assholes.

Lethem would return to the detective genre with the award-winning Motherless Brooklyn, which if I were a Polsky brother and had just blown into Hollywood with an butt load of cash, I would have started there. Talking kangaroos and the like are tricky to pull off without looking ridiculous, and like the creatures in David Cronenberg’s 1991 take on Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, perhaps left to the individual widescreens in our heads.

As for who might be right for the part of Metcalf—why not double down and go with Cage? In for a penny, in for a pound.

Greenberg (2010)

When the 20-somethings having a party at the house that Ben Stiller’s misanthropic 40-year-old character was supposed to be watching exclaimed, “There’s something in the pool!” I hoped it was a dead Greenberg. I really did. It wasn’t.

As for the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern who wrote, “The wonder of this film is how good it makes us feel …” Joe, there is something wrong with you.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

So … wait a minute … Paul Sunday is real? I went through the whole movie thinking that a) Eli was crazier than a shithouse rat, and b) Plainview knew it and was just fucking with him before he beat him to death with a bowling pin. I guess that makes sense. Why mess with someone’s head if you’re just going to stave it in?

Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005)

Straight up architecture porn! Filmed by friend (and Oscar-winning director) Sydney Pollack, this documentary is less a critical look at a controversial modern artist, than a handheld video love poem to Gehry and his vision.

But what a vision! The sight of Gehry at home in his workshop of like-minded designers is a fascinating glimpse into one man’s singular creative process. Gehry comes off less like a mad genius than the smart kid on the block who just happens to own the biggest Erector Set ever made. To his credit, Gehry is willing to share his toys (and to a lesser extent, the limelight), all while creating some of the most interesting buildings of the late 20th–early 21st century.

Pollack does allow one of Gehry’s biggest detractors screen time, but whether through creative editing or the man’s attitude, he comes off like a pompous ass, and his comments smack of sour grapes.

The film captures some of Gehry’s best-known buildings reflecting and reacting to their surroundings; the interplay of the light and curvilinear forms beautifully illustrates just what the point of all this fuss really is.

Burden of Dreams (1982)

I’ve been familiar with East Bay filmmaker Les Blank’s work for as long as I can remember. His 1970 portrait of blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, was one of my first introductions to both the Delta blues and documentary film.

In the fascinating Burden of Dreams, Blank follows the making of German director Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a film based on the true story of an Irish businessman’s obsession to bring opera to the jungles of South America. Part of the scheme famously involved dragging a steamship up over a mountain ridge to exploit a remote river basin.

Does Herzog film within spitting distance of anything, since all jungle looks like jungle? No. Of course not. He drags cast and crew into the middle of a border war deep in the Amazon interior. Psychologically, you can almost get behind the effect he was going for. How better to capture the mania and fruitlessness of Fitzcarraldo’s quest than to isolate everyone with Klaus Kinski in a remote clearing hacked out of the teaming wilderness?

Herzog’s obsession with realism crosses the line into mania when he insists on using a real steamship to capture the film’s centerpiece. Enlisting and endangering the native population, he disregards the onsite engineer who tells him that if he tries to drag the ship over the slick mountain track using only block and tackle and a single bulldozer, someone was going to get killed.

Fitzcarraldo eventually becomes Herzog’s Apocalypse Now, pushing the director beyond the normal boundaries of humanity, and ultimately, sanity. Like Francis Ford Coppola, who began to empathize with his protagonist’s Conradian voyage upriver, Herzog seems to be becoming Fitzcarraldo as he risks everything to bring his fever dream to fruition.

Two decades later, Herzog ruminated on the misguided obsession that lead to the death of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend at the tragic end of his 2005 film Grizzly Man. “And what haunts me,” he narrates, “is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” Blank has shown us that if there are two things Herzog knows about they are obsession and the fact that nature doesn’t give a damn about your obsession.

Branford Marsalis — Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (2004)

Branford’s got balls. You really have to hand it to a guy that will take on the most-loved and respected example of his craft, in this case John Coltrane’s epic A Love Supreme suite—not once, not twice, but tackles it a third time—until he feels that he’s got it right.

His first tentative reading was released as a bonus disc on 1994’s AIDS benefit compilation Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, an attempt I think he would rather forget as evidenced by its non-inclusion on his official discography.

This time Marsalis has some heavyweight cred in his corner. Coltrane’s widow and late-period bandmate Alice shows up on the extras to graciously bless the proceedings and provide some inner circle insights on John’s composition.

Recorded live in an Amsterdam jazz club, the quartet has finally gotten over being too reverential toward the material, a deadly habit when it comes to jazz, but a trap many of Marsalis’s fellow “young lions” struggled with early on. With the first tenor intro of Acknowledgement, Branford claims this performance as his own.

With Marsalis setting the pace, the rest of the group seems freed up from sticking too close to the script. Drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts drives the piece as relentlessly as Elvin Jones without the overplaying he has been accused of in the past.

Pianist Joey Calderazzo’s solo on Resolution is a thing of beauty, using McCoy Tyner’s style as a touchstone while incorporating other influences such as Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett.

The bass is such an important and deceptively simple sounding part of A Love Supreme. Eric Revis anchors the quartet’s more ecstatic flights while stepping out with a solo in the third movement that honors Jimmy Garrison’s work without merely reproducing it.

Someone who really understands how to capture a musical performance by a small group filmed the DVD. There isn’t a single instance of “why are we looking at him?” Well done all around.

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Third time’s a charm? Don’t believe it. There have been very few movie franchises that have successfully stretched a premise out past the five-hour mark. Godfather III? Superman III? For the love of God, Jaws 3D? For all that, the latest installment of the wisecracking web slinger wasn’t as bad as the negative hype led me to believe. I would venture a guess however, that barring a Batman-style reset, the Spidey cash cow is dead.

The problem this time around wasn’t too many villains as most of the reviews howled. For me, the problem was one of insincerity. When Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker becomes host to a symbiotic alien that amplifies the aggressive tendencies of its host, he reacts by doing a ridiculous Tony Manero-style strut down the street, winking and jiving at all the girls. Perhaps director/writer Sam Rami should have just gone ahead and got Travolta for the flick, since the next thing you know, Parker is dancing out his anger at being dropped by his girlfriend at her place of employment.

Parker’s accusatory dance scene is out of character, not with Parker—since he is after-all driven through this part of the movie by an evil alien suit—but with the rest the movie. Damn it, Rami, with all the misplaced singing and dancing in this movie, if you want to do a musical, do a damn musical.

Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane seems like she would rather be somewhere else throughout most of her limited scenes. If Rami had been thinking long-term, he should have left this part of the Peter Parker story until Spider-Man 4. It’s not the Mary Jane story after all, and her moping around doesn’t help move the convoluted plot at all.

As for a damsel-in-distress, Lil’ Opie Cunningham’s daughter Bryce Dallas Howard more than fills the bill as Gwen Stacy and actually looks to be having some fun with the role.

Classic Spider-Man villains Sandman and Venom are realized pretty well in CGI. I don’t know if it’s a by-product of getting old, or the fact that computer animation didn’t exist while my young brain was still cooking, but I find it hard to follow the rapid pace of most of today’s special effects. I think the visuals could benefit by slowing down the action so that we can take in all that careful art direction and complex choreography.

Also, I would have liked for Rami to hold off playing the Venom card until that story could be explored on its own. Sandman, and the movie, would have been better served by hooking up with other Silver Age bad guys like Electro or the Vulture. But that’s just me, I rock it old school.

The Savages (2008)

The Savages, penned by Slums of Beverly Hills writer Tamara Jenkins, is the classic Peter Pan story turned on its head. Jon and Wendy Darling are replaced by the Savage siblings, who while in their 40s, can’t seem to grow up. While the protagonist doesn’t come flying in through the bedroom window, their absentee father comes back into their lives just as abruptly after he is kicked out of his Arizona retirement community suffering from dementia.

Instead of taking the pair off to Never Land, Lenny Savage introduces Jon, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Wendy, played by the fantastic Laura Linney, to the places at the end of the road. Hoffman and Linney are completely believable as brother and sister as they argue over nursing homes and what to do with the irascible Lenny.

Long-buried sibling rivalries come bubbling up to the surface coming to a head when Jon asks Wendy to cover for him so he can finish his book on Bertolt Brecht. She tries to one-up her older brother by lying about getting a Guggenheim fellowship, only making things worse when he finds out the truth.

Jenkins avoids the feel-good Hollywood ending, so just go into it knowing that The Savages is a pretty realistic look at family, growing old, and the ties that bind. It’s brutal at times, funny at times, and then everything goes to hell.

Just like life.

Stranger than Fiction (2006)

This turned out to be much more than the trifling Will Ferrell vehicle I expected. Scriptwriter Zach Helm examines the relationship between writers and their characters in an interesting, almost Kaufmanesque way. (Has Charlie Kaufman written enough screenplays to warrant his own auctorial descriptive? Are we even agreed that auctorial descriptive is the correct term for such literary adjectivizations?) It helps that Emma Thompson, who seems to be channeling a shambolic Peter O’Toole, plays the writer in question. A female Peter O’Toole with serious writer’s block.

Ferrell plays an IRS auditor who hears Thompson’s third-person omniscient voice narrating his life. To his credit, he plays it completely straight even when Dustin Hoffman, a college lit professor, asks him a series of ridiculous questions designed to help him figure out what story he might be in and who might be writing it. Are you the king of anything? King of the lanes at the local bowling alley? King of the lanes, king of the trolls? A clandestine land found underneath your floorboards?

Ferrell’s character weathers the one-two punch of falling for an anarchist baker (played by the brilliant Maggie Gyllenhaal) and finding out that the writer is going to kill him off. There are a few twists before Helm delivers an ending that examines what it means to live versus what it means to truly be alive.

Stranger than Fiction also serves up a feast for the eyes (beyond the afore-mentioned Gyllenhaal). The subtle graphics that show Ferrell’s active OCD are wonderfully realized and add another dimension to his character. Design geeks will want to stay put for the end credits as well.

Gimmie Shelter (1970)

The last time I’d seen the Maysles Brothers’ documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 Altamont debacle was long before I had ever been on a stage myself. The years I’ve put in playing the Bay Area with the Drogues in the interim gave me quite a different perspective on the recent(ish) Criterion Collection DVD.

It’s funny, but I didn’t remember Mick Jagger being punched in the face upon arrival at the site. The new high-definition transfer from the original 16mm negative only sharpens the sense of impending disaster as the day begins to unravel. You really get a glimpse of what it would have been like to be onstage surrounded by hordes of freaked-out people and unpredictable, violent Hells Angels as far as the eye could see.

When night finally falls, the lack of appropriate film lighting brings the malevolence claustrophobically close. You can see the event lurching toward what it ultimately became: a tribal blood sacrifice. At one point the reality of the situation seems to stop Jagger in his tracks, but only momentarily. He then breaks into a frenzied dance as Rome burns at his feet.

It begs the question: at that moment, did Jagger realize that all the Satanic posturing and flirting with the ancient blues idioms finally bear unholy fruit and to revel in it would be to feel its power wash over him? Or did he realize, that as a performer, to stop at that point would only make things worse?

The frozen shot of him walking away from the editing desk after confronting the film record doesn’t clear things up. Is that a look of remorse? Exhaustion? Or was that the look of an artist who saw the opportunity to push his persona as far as it would go, took it, and is defiantly culpable for the consequences?