It’s December, and that can mean only two things: The inexplicable ubiquity of “Christmas Shoes” will once again force you to trot out that dusty old list of painless suicide possibilities, and an abusive onslaught of countdown lists will litter every magazine rack from here to Sarah Palin’s neighborhood Wall-mart. That being said, I’ve decided against bombarding you with my own tired lists (despite having an insatiable desire to crown the release of Weezer’s “Red” album as the most disappointing event of 2008). Instead, throughout the month of December, I will bring you a series titled “What I Learned From 2008,” with a different (semi)daily post highlighting one of this year’s most elucidating bits of, well, whatever. There’s no particular order to this exercise and the posts will inevitably vary in length and severity. But the point here is not to qualify. The point is to reflect. So, shall we?
Lesson Number One: Woody Allen Is Still Brilliant (and Britney Spears Is Only a Lipstick Pig)
Whether these two assertions have anything to do with one another I am still not sure. But regardless of their probable mutual exclusivity they lead off the 2008 lesson series because they make me feel good. Really good.
First, the matter of Mr. Allen:
Praise be to Providence! Do you know how long I languished in perpetual fear that I had seen the last of the Woodman’s genius? Do you know how many nights I awoke in a cold sweat, shotgun to my head, thinking, “If he’s finished, shit, I might as well end it all right now!” It was hell I tell you. Hell! And it all began the morning after I saw Hollywood Ending in 2002.
I was a junior in college, impossibly enmeshed in film school, and desperate for any sign of life from a filmmaker I had come to regard as one of the greatest of our time. This picture, however, was not it, and everyone knew it. I walked into a coffee shop on Pine Street to meet my friend Sean Purtill for a morning cup of joe that day. He was smoking a cigarette and reading the most recent edition of the Philadelphia Weekly. When he saw me, he tossed the paper my way. “Did you read this yet?” He was referring to the review of Woody’s latest release.
What was he thinking? Of course I had read it! It was the first thing I did that morning. After rationalizing all night that what I had seen at the Ritz movie theatre wasn’t really that bad, I was fiending for confirmation from someone—anyone—that Woody wasn’t finished. Alas, every word of Sean Burns’s acerbic review only served to drive me deeper and deeper into a depression that lasted for weeks. Weeks! And my friend Sean took a strange delight in my misery.
If I may, an excerpt from Mr. Burns’s harsh missive:
“Right away you can tell something’s gone horribly wrong in Woody-ville, with all the characters shouting gigantic passages of repetitive exposition on top of one another and amateurishly fumbling with their lines. (I swear I caught a bit player glancing at a cue card.)…It’s also a grotesquely ugly picture, awash in harsh overhead lighting that makes the performers look like death warmed over. Naturally, this does little to dispel the ick factor inherent in the 66-year-old Allen’s painful penchant for casting love interests half his age.”
This review hung heavy over my head for six years. Six long years filled with the painful mediocrity of projects like Scoop, Anything Else, and (the almost decent) Melinda and Melinda. Even the hints of rediscovered genius that were evident in Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream couldn’t fully shake my melancholy. But just as I was beginning to go slowly into the night and surrender my hopes that Mr. Allen had anything else to offer me, he came up with Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And the heavens parted. And the angels sang. And Lazarus did the jig.
Sure, Vicky Cristina Barcelona may not wind up in the sacred Allen cannon alongside such masterworks as Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters…but it should. Not only is it one of Woody’s most cinematically rich and organic pictures to date, but it also marks a turning point in a career that many of his harshest critics have deemed, well, predictable. Yes, Allen fans will certainly find familiar themes here. Psychoanalytic ruminations on love and art, anxieties caused by creative impotence, and an almost mythic obsession with the feminine mystique all abound in the film, but what marks Vicky Cristina Barcelona as an undeniably inspired turn for the filmmaker is the context and tone of its execution. More than any other Allen film to grace the screen in the last decade, Vicky Cristina Barcelona heralds the dawning of a shifting world perspective for the filmmaker, and it’s a pleasure to behold
Allen’s cynical, cerebral edges finally seem to be softening, and at the center of his perpetually melting exterior is (would you believe it?) poetry. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a small, beautiful film that brings to mind gems like Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, with European bike rides through cozy villages and intimate close-ups on candlelit lovemaking, all of it tinged with both the bitter and the sweet; the comic and the tragic. And while this film doesn’t seek to completely destroy the filmmaker’s perpetual obsession with the seeming futility of love and life, it does seek to make the blow a little less terrifying.
It’s not so much overt optimism on Allen’s part as it is a surrender to that which makes life worth living, regardless of the pain or disappointment or futility. I think back to the final scene in Manhattan, wherein Allen narrates into a tape recorder a list things that give him a reason to continue living. Groucho Marx. Cezanne’s apples and pears. The second movement of the “Jupiter” symphony. Well, if I were making a similar list right now, Vicky Cristina Barcelona would probably fall somewhere between whiskey and mint chocolate chip ice cream. It’s Allen’s greatest achievement in over a decade, and it has given me a reason to keep on going.
And then there’s Britney Spears. See, the most significant difference between Woody and Britney (well, besides the obvious…glasses) is that I wanted Spears to fail. Her decline in recent years has actually helped me sleep. And now it seems 2008 is ending with her accession, and that really pisses me off.
My sister Erica often jokes that should she make it to the age of forty, Britney will inevitably wind up snorting cocaine off the ass of a dead homeless man lying face down in his own urine inside a Turnpike rest stop. Whenever she says this I have a tendency to nod my head and make the types of sounds one usually reserves for agreeing with preachers. “Mm hmm. You said it sister. Testify!” That’s how certain we were of Britney’s inevitable collapse. We had made it into our own little mini-religion. And every time Britney’s train wobbled on the tracks—like when she started getting fat or when she shaved her head or when she started throwing her baby out of moving cars—Erica and I bowed our heads in reverence and gave each other little sadistic high fives. Justice—at least our twisted version of it—was being served.
You can imagine the extent of our disappointment then when suddenly, almost imperceptibly, Britney started making a “come back.” No! This wasn’t supposed to happen. This was not part of the plan. This was not what God wanted. We were just getting ready for the cocaine and the homeless man’s ass, not the shedding of pounds and the reclamation of positive fame! It was all so unholy. And who asked for this supposed “comeback” anyway? Was the world really a less enjoyable place without Ms. Spears?
Regardless of the answers to those questions, Britney’s reemergence is still rather sad. Just take a look at the following video, which shows Britney performing live on England’s “X-Factor” (“American Idol” with accents). It was supposed to be her leather-Elvis show. It was supposed to usher in the new age of Britney. Instead, the entire thing is marred by a vaguely pathetic sense of pale nostalgia. Every hip thrust, every flip of the hair, every (so very awkward!) clomp across the stage in a pair of ridiculous black leather boots whispers: Remember how much fun this used to be? Remember when I was naughty and dangerous? Remember?
Yes, we do remember, and that’s precisely what makes this whole “comeback” episode so odious. I have no doubt that the last two years have been severely, well, fucked up for Spears, but instead of alluding to the ways in which that time changed her, she’s giving us the same old tired tripe that got her to insanity land in the first place (which was stale and unoriginal even before she got fat). Spears is doing nothing to reinvent herself or give us anything that remotely resembles a sense of personal reflection. And I guess in that I am glad, because eventually she’ll go insane. And my sister and I will rejoice.
Oh, One More Thing…
As a post script to the above sentiment, I’d like to share a video that was recently sent to me. It’s a dance routine done by Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell to Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” in 1940. As many of my friends know, I spend a lot of time lamenting the aesthetic decline of pop-culture and its fans. And just to be sure, I’m not talking about art here. I’m talking about pop-culture. There will always be great art, and there will always be great artists who toil away in perpetual obscurity. I get that. But I’m not talking about art. I’m talking about pop-culture.
I suppose the two are not always so disparate. Sometimes they collide. Take Shakespeare. During his time, The Bard was pop-culture at its best. Or how about the Beatles? See what I mean? But I digress. The point is, this number is incredible. Genius. American pop culture at a height of ingenuity and craft. No matter how much we swoon over the likes of Spears or Milee Cyrus or any other contemporary pop musical figure (Beyonce and her “All The Single Ladies” video probably notwithstanding…that’s actually pretty awesome), none of them will ever hold a candle to the brilliance of folks like Astaire and Powell. That’s not nostalgia or curmudgeonist history. It’s quantifiable fact. To quote Frank Sinatra (who narrates another version of this video): “Ya know, you can wait around and hope, but you’ll never see the likes of this again.” You said it Frank! Enjoy.