From the Archive — Late Night with David Letterman

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On the occasion of the announcement of the second season premiere date for David Letterman’s Netflix program, I luckily have this archival piece loaded up and ready to go. Written for the “Flashback Fridays” feature I mounted at my former online home, this was one of several attempts I made at reckoning with the enormous influence Letterman and his NBC program (and, to a lesser degree, his follow-up on CBS) had on my comic and creative sensibilities.

I should acknowledge this piece was going to post (or re-post, in a way) today regardless of the actions of Netflix’s PR department. After launching the “In the Archive” feature several years ago to mine old writing efforts, I think I’ve basically run out of words to import to this space. I may revive it periodically if I ever stumble upon any other dusty pieces of writing (there are loads of old reviews from my radio movie reviewing days that I haven’t physically unearthed, but I’m hoping still exist somewhere in my household’s deep storage), but I’ve got something else in mind for Saturdays moving forward. But that’s next week….

Late Night with David Letterman debuts

It made no sense for David Letterman to get a job hosting a new late night talking show to air following the enduring institution of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. While a favorite of Carson, who had an astounding level of clout at NBC (and really in show business in general) in the early eighties, Letterman had already endured one disastrous failure at the network with his short-lived morning talk show. To many observers, creating the program Late Night with him and for him was just transplanting a known mistake to a different time of day. Instead, the show simply changed comedy.

It was a splendid contradiction from the beginning with Letterman taking a chainsaw to the very conventions of a late night talk show even as he so clearly revered them (I suspect he’d take greater umbrage at someone speaking unkind words about Carson than a person slinging insults at his mom). The show was greatly informed by the brilliant deadpan absurdity of head writer Merrill Markoe as filtered through Letterman’s unique sensibility, an appreciation of the purely goofy mixed with an an especially aggressive brand of irony. He also had an purely Midwestern uptight approach to the guests on the show which made his celebrity interviews a little awkward and the interviews with borderline crackpots wildly entertaining. In fact, during the earliest years of the show, when big name bookings were hard to come by, the producers discovered there were few things funnier than Letterman thrown into complete discomfort by a guest, meaning a steady parade of the likes of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Brother Theodore, and Harvey Pekar.

After taking a crack at sitcom guest spots and a turn as as a member of a variety show troupe, it was clear that something different was needed for the gap-toothed comic from Indiana. Basically, showbiz had no place for David Letterman, so he had to invent his own. And Late Night was a constant source of amazing comic invention. The current overpopulated landscape of late night talk shows is currently marked by a smothering control of the proceedings, but Late Night felt spontaneously and unpredictable. Any gag was fair game, and pushing against the very form of the show was the greatest gag of all. Letterman once did an entire show from the confines of his office, an experiment that culminated with regular guest Teri Garr taking a shower in his bathroom. The camera might rotate, a fountain of wine might be installed in front of his desk, they might leave the progression of the show up to audience vote. In some ways, the creation of the Top Ten Lists was the worst thing that could have happened to the show. It provided a structure that was confining, a recurring obligation that blunted the need for fresh creativity. It’s a problem that those working on the show recognized at different times, trying to discard the concept occasionally over the years, only to be forced to revive it due to its popularity. It was a sign that the show and Letterman’s comedy was moving from upstart to institution.

Without Letterman and his groundbreaking show, comedy would look very different now. I’m convinced that shows like The SimpsonsArrested Development30 Rock and others that stood somewhat outside of themselves as they delivered wry commentary on the foibles of their characters would have never come into being, or at least would have been incredibly different. Despite their emphasis on the sort of deep news coverage that never interested Letterman much back in the day, there may be no clearer progeny of Letterman’s Late Night than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. They are shows about being a show where the comedy is self-commentary. Even the correspondents have a certain Larry “Bud” Melman quality about them.

The show may not have arrived with the greatest fanfare. Instead, it was sort of friendly shrug, which took the pressure off, made it seem like it could be anything Letterman and his crew wanted it to be. That’s what made it free, and that’s what made it great.

From the Archive — Quantum of Solace

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For the second straight Saturday, I reach back for a review of a modern Bond film not previously loaded up to this particular site. This was written for my former online home.

Quantum of Solace is the twenty-fifth film to feature British superspy James Bond, and the twenty-second in the “official” franchise which launched some forty-five years ago with Dr. No. Really, though, all those antecedents have about as much connection to this new film as Joel Schumacher’s Gotham City drenched in melted Jolly Ranchers has to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. What is onscreen now is less Bond 22 and more Casino Royale 2. Bringing in Daniel Craig to play Bond wasn’t a mere casting change. It was an impetus to completely revise the franchise, jettisoning the familiar trappings. Whatever familiar notes held in Craig’s first outing are completely gone now. It’s a whole new era of filmmaking and James Bond has been Bourne again.

It’s not just the tone and style that are notable holdovers from Royale. The plot is built on a tendril of that film, with Bond seemingly shaken (not stirred) by the betrayal and death of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Her demise is tied into the megalomaniacal plotting of some global corporate overlords that call themselves Quantum, providing the film’s strained title and an attempt to create a massive, sustained adversary in a geopolitical environment where something like SMERSH no longer seems credible. The screenplay, credited to the same trio that wrote Casino Royale, achieves a strangely simplistic convolution. The villainous machinations are easy to suss out and yet nearly indecipherable, complex, and inexplicably dull.

The screenplay, however, could be overcome with right directing. Bond films, with their silly, schoolboy puns and paper thin motivations, have never been cinema with especially literary, erudite charms. The verve of the staging and directing (and, of course, in Sean Connery’s finest moments, the acting) went a long way towards forgiving the words on the page that may have been lacking. There’s no rescue providing by director Mark Forster here. Forster’s career highlights been marked by adequate direction of good materialQuantum of Solace requires something more. Forster apparently doesn’t have it in him.

The directing is clumsy all around. The digital hash of the editing is a familiar shortfall of modern action movies, but Foster’s technique has more significant problems. During the action sequences, his camera is usually in too close, occasionally too far away, and is rarely in the right place. A fight staged amongst scaffolding inside an opera house appears to be spectacularly choreographed, but it would take major editing room reconstructive surgery to know for certain. Plane battles, boat chases, exotic locales, seductive women — it all gets dragged on to the screen, feeling obligatory and lifeless. The movie churns and grinds, to little effect.

Casino Royale, imperfect itself, managed to raise some vital signs in the Bond franchise. It moved from being an occasional curiosity, tinged by nostalgia and even a touch of camp, to something that deserved some attention as filmmaking with high potential. There’s no doubt it was a change for the better, but it’s harder to see it that way the the follow-up has used that transformation for little more than finding a whole new way to fail.

From the Archive — Casino Royale

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I’m running low on older material, so we’re likely in the last few weeks of the “From the Archive” feature. Hence, the recent ramping up of pre-production promo for the next James Bond film — led by casting announcements that include a recent Oscar winner as the villain — are cause enough to dust off old reviews of Daniel Craig’s initial turns in the famed 007 role. Today, it’s Casino Royale. This was originally published at my former online home.

There’s the whole subculture of film fandom desperately devoted to discussions of James Bond. They’ll debate Bond cars, Bond gadgets, Bond villains and Bond girls with adamant dedication to their own list of favorites, but it usually results in fetishizing the years that Sean Connery played the British spy. Seriously, I doubt there’s anyone out there stumping for Dr. Christmas Jones as the best Bond girl, and if you encounter this individual you should probably avoid talking movies with them. It’s got to be a pretty frustrating brand of movie junkiedom when you’re chasing the high of films from around forty years ago.

Despite the fact that the recent outings starring Pierce Brosnan have ranked among the strongest of the twenty official Bond films in terms of box office, the producers felt it was time to reinvent the franchise, tossing away the weathered tropes in favor of a grimmer, more realistic approach more in keeping with author Ian Fleming’s original conception of the character. Call it “Bond: Year One,” or, in movie parlance, Bond Begins. They’ve rebooted with Casino Royale, introducing us to Bond at the precise moment he earns his double-oh status and depicting his earliest days as a member of her majesty’s secret service.

To help make the new beginning all the more clear, they’ve recast the central role, giving us the sixth actor to take on Bond since the series launched in 1961. Daniel Craig plays 007 as an angry, impulsive figure, still working off whatever childhood issues sent him into this suicidal line of work and developing the mental and emotional callouses that will help him survive. He’s driven rather than suave. Thrillingly enough, when he seduces a beautiful woman early on it’s a means to gather information, not a retreat from the urgent matters at hand for a little Playboy-era canoodling. This Bond is focused. He’s got a job to do, and a bedroom romp is only as valuable as the distance it edges our man closer to his international security goals.

The serious approach is welcome, longed for even. But they may have erred too far on the side of subduing the spectacle. This Bond film is serious, alright. It’s also a little dull. Director Martin Campbell helmed Pierce Brosnan’s original go-round as Bond, and he returns to help introduce Craig. His work is solid enough, especially in the action sequences, but everything seems to just take a little too long, move a little too slowly. He lingers on the set-up when we’ve already figured out the payoff. It’s worthwhile to jettison the more ridiculous elements of the previous films, but it seems they’ve mistaken slack pacing for thoughtful filmmaking.

It’s all the more frustrating because the perfect medium between invisible cars and ice castles and a realistic (okay, quasi-realistic) depiction of spy work is contained right there in the first reel. Bond chases a scarred bomb-maker through a construction site, matching the man’s incredibly athletic leaps and bounds up unfinished elevator shifts and from girder to girder. The sequence plays out like a less cartoonish version of one of Jackie Chan’s marvelously inventive set pieces. It also benefits from actual stunt work: real humans instead of imperiled video game avatars. There’s undoubtedly some CGI-bolstering of the on-set heroics, but it’s still oddly refreshing to see the thrills built the old-fashioned way. For one satisfying stretch, we’re actually getting a taste of the Bond we deserve: one that’s grounded in the times but still capable of making the impossible seem just real enough to believe it.

From the Archive — A History of Violence

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As the striking of the twentieth anniversary of the 1999 resounds, there’s been a revived interest in arguing that the bygone year in question might have represented the best twelve month span in the long history of cinema. That’s a notion Entertainment Weekly stumped for as the year was still unfolding, so I’ve had plenty of time to be not quite convinced. I might be more inclined to co-sign if more of the ’99-inclined film writers entered David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, released twenty years ago this week, as the chief exhibit. Plenty of Cronenberg’s films are imperfect, and I’d argue a couple are outright bad, but in the undeclared battle between iconoclastic moviemaking Davids, I’ll always vigorously champion the Canadian with plenty of dried blood under his fingernails over Lynch. I have one last review of a Cronenberg film that hasn’t been carted over to this digital space, a consideration of A History of Violence, arguably his last truly impeccable work. This was written for my former online home.

The are certain things you need to be prepared for going into a David Cronenberg film: unflinching gore, tricky explorations of the ways in which sex and violence intersect and a deadpan approach to these things that, by itself, can be off-putting. Luckily, you usually need to be equally prepared to dissect a piece of art that is more complicated and nuanced than the average Hollywood Important FilmTM or even (especially?) the latest example of dark, edgy, filmic genius. Even when his films aren’t very good, they’re interesting and challenging. And A History of Violence is very good.

The film is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke that was issued through the marginally successful Paradox Press line of DC Comics. I’m not going to say much about the plot, because it’s definitely one of those films that benefits from knowing as little as possible going into it. For one thing, Cronenberg’s odd rhythms will probably work better for those not trying to anticipate when certain plot elements will kick in. According to our expectations of a typical narrative, very little happens in the first reel. There is character development and the establishment of plot points, but Cronenberg seems to be primarily laying the groundwork for the themes he’ll explore through the rest of the work: identity is pliable, violence begets more violence, sometimes we choose the lie because it’s preferable to the truth. There are moments in the first portion of the film that are very stiff and stilted, but I think that’s by design. Cronenberg wants us to see the rigidity, bloodlessness and finally fakery of the idyllic, standardized world that his characters live in. That’s not to say that Cronenberg is satirizing and condemning American small time life, an approach that is so overused that it’s become a sure sign of creative laziness. He’s simply pointing out that’s a falsely constructed reality; that doesn’t mean it may not be a better choice than the honest reality that eventually intrudes.

There’s actually not much violence in the film, basically a few relatively quick scenes. There are some gruesome sights, but they come and go quickly. Cronenberg doesn’t let his camera linger. There’s nothing gratuitous about the especially graphic moments, something Cronenberg has occasionally been guilty of in the past, which he basically acknowledged and satirized in what I think still stands as his best film (although, I’ll concede that this one might actual deserve that title—I need to think on it some more). Every moment, no matter how difficult to look at, makes sense with and contributes to what Cronenberg is trying to say about violence.

The movie gets extra credit for being the first to properly showcase Maria Bello. She’s long been the best actor in bad moviesthe only actor maintaining some respectability in horrible movies, or the most neglected actor in mediocre movies in which other actors are celebrated to a baffling degree. Here Bello gets to really dig in and connects in moments both large and small.

And how did it take this long for Cronenberg to cast fellow space alien Bill Hurt in a film?

From the Archive — 90FM Trivia 1989

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The general intent of this “From the Archive” weekly feature is to drag some old piece of my personal writing and drop it into this shiny digital space. For today, I’m instead going to use the retrospective aspect of my Saturday task to tip my hat one more time to the World’s Largest Trivia Contest, being staged at WWSP-90FM, the student-run radio station at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. This is the fiftieth edition of the contest, and it is the thirty year anniversary of the first time I operated within the confines of the station, helping the run the whole endeavor. It had been a wild, wonderful journey with this strange endeavor, and as I type, I am far too weary to add more, except for one more major thanks to everyone who’s shepherded the event along over the years.

More info about 90FM’s Trivia can be found at its official website or at the radio station’s online home. There’s also a feature documentary about the contest, but it’s fairly hard to come by these days. To see how my team is faring over the weekend, Twitter is probably the best bet.

From the Archive — Synecdoche, New York

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I enjoy tinkering with formats and structure, but I employ the practice rarely. Goofing around for the sake of it feels overly intrusive. There should be a point, as when I spoofed Quentin Tarantino’s title cards to add one more ting of derision to my review of The Hateful Eight or the silly little trick I pulled when writing about The ABCs of Death for Spectrum Culture, a mirror of the movie’s gimmickry. And this big wall of text was constructed in an attempt to replicate the frustrating, impenetrable storytelling of Charlie Kaufman in his feature directorial debut. This was originally published at my former online home. 

Charlie Kaufman’s new film is entitled Synecdoche, New York. The Academy Award winner previously scripted such mind-benders as Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is first time he’s directed. The plot follows a theater director from Syracuse as he responds to some sad turmoil in his personal life by launching himself into a wildly, ludicrously ambitious new project. He uses money received from a MacArthur “Genius Grant” to purchase a cavernous New York City warehouse. Inside, he oversees the construction of a massive set, effectively a reconstruction of metropolis and sets forth a cast of dozens, hundreds, thousands to engage in an ongoing improvisational rehearsal. Around this there are varied romances, an estranged relationship with his daughter and looming medical problems. These are the details of the plot, but it is not remotely what the film is about. The film is about many of the same preoccupations that runs through Kaufman’s most celebrated works like veins under the skin. It is about the the pliability of identity, the shortcomings of art in addressing the messiness of the human condition, the enveloping bleakness of demise looming mercilessly on the horizon, the battle of artifice versus authenticity, the routine madness the infects the world, the haziness of memory as it tries to protect us from our own pain, the misery of being unloved and the inevitability of losing anything that gives us brief tastes of joy and solace. In short, it seems to be about the wounding burden of being Charlie Kaufman. His stand-in is that theater director, named Caden Cotard and played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Caden is inventive and misunderstood, obsessed by his own creativity and wracked with self-doubt, even self-loathing. He is a stage-oriented extension of the character Kaufman created as his direct doppelgänger in Adaptation. with a MacArthur grant instead of an Oscar to bring a crushing, paralyzing expectation down upon him. If it seemed that Kaufman couldn’t get more insular that he was in writing a film that posited himself as the central character, depicting his own inability to write the very film being viewed, then let Synecdoche prove that apparently sound theory wholly shortsighted. Kaufman addresses his own fears about inauthentic in art by creating a film built upon being inauthentic but continually calling attention to its own inauthenticity and claiming higher, sounder, more artistic truth in that cunning self-awareness. Kaufman’s own falsehoods are cleansed and absolved by his depiction of Cotard’s struggles with finding truth within recreation, or so he thinks. Instead, Synedoche, New York is wearying evidence that when you gaze into the navel the navel gazes back at you. Kaufman’s bundles dense conversations about meaning and genuineness and love and art. They go nowhere. They spin aimlessly, as lost and endless as Caden’s production that never truly begins. It’s so distancing that it imperils the entire film. Even the flashes of insight, the handful of scenes—mostly early on, mostly involving Caden’s soon-to-be-disrupted family unit–that have some sharpness to them, a simple honesty that cuts through the rambling cleverness, feel buried eventually, deemed invalid by Kaufman’s itchy, paranoid judgment against his own words, his own worlds. Maybe the minuscule paintings renders by Caden’s wife are meant to lampoon art world pretensions, or maybe Kaufman is just amused by the visual of people prowling a gallery with magnifying glasses affixed against their brows like headlamps on descending miners. Either way, it’s plausible enough. But what to make of the ticket-seller played by Samantha Morton purchasing a house that always has low but active flames flickering in the woodwork. What does it mean? And how do we take seriously Kaufman’s explorations of the unavoidable deceits of drama when he sticks something so patently phony into the part of the film that’s supposed to take place in the real world, the world that Caden is investing so much effort into capturing? Or is that the point? Caden’s futility is not just a reflection of the inherent limits of artistic endeavor, but the lunacy of trying to depict, condense, render something real from an existence that is in itself awash in fakery? Caden can’t do it because it is impossible. And neither can Charlie. Therefore, this headlong dash into a narrative brick wall is weirdly honorable. The self-absorption is thorough and relentless. The film is a snake eating itself. More than that, it’s a snake in a snake costume consuming the tail, uncertain if it’s eating tail, costume, both, or if the distinction even matters. Whether it even matters is a whole other element. Kaufman has employed a foolproof methodology to make his film impervious to criticism. If the film is irredeemably messy, it is intentionally so, that messiness fully representative of the messiness of life, of art, of art rendering life, and life mirroring art. To call the film a mess, to call it confusing, to call it muddled or indulgent is simply to apply descriptors that bolster Kaufman’s thesis. Pointing out failures is the same as celebrating accomplishments. Everything is spot on right by virtue of being terribly wrong. The artists creates the art until the art consumes him, and that tragic finale, that suicide by creation, is the only acceptable ending in Charlie Kaufman’s reckoning. The impossibility of the endeavor is no more or less demeaning than any number of daily indignities, than the crossed up confusion of language or the sudden, silent endings of those tallied in the newspaper obituary section. Apply any mathematics you like, the sum is always zero. The film is a vicious circle, but the circle is so vast that you will have forgotten the ground you crossed before the journey leads you to recross it. That is, it seems, the way Charlie Kaufman likes it. The way he needs it to be. And all these words I tap out in response are more meaningless than usual. I’m not sure why you’re even still reading. You should have quit long before. God knows, I would have.

From the Archive — Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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As the new version of Dumbo soar into theaters, it seems a long lifetime since a new directorial effort from Tim Burton was cause for excitement. When I was crafting reviews for my college radio station in the early nineteen-nineties, Burton was an exciting presence, developing playfully gloomy visions that seemed revolutionary, or at least smeared-eyeliner subversive. He cast quite a spell. At the time his film adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was released, Burton was over a decade removed from his last truly laudable feature and I was still beginning from an assumption of cinematic authorship worth studying. His next movie, which launched the increasingly regrettable Disney practice of raiding and remaking the most beloved artifacts in its back catalog, put a decisive end to that generosity. I think this assessment is still sound, but I’d also wager Burton’s fingerprints on the film look a little different to me now. This was written for my former online home.

I’ll say this for Tim Burton and company: They didn’t flinch. In bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from the stage to the big screen, it would have been so easy to soften the material, finesse away the darkest of the dark elements, demurely turn the camera away whenever the title character opened up another throat. Sure, accusations of cowardice would have been founded and the most fervent devotees of Broadway musicals and Stephen Sondheim would have been tempted to take up their own straight razors against the filmmakers, but so many more tickets could have been sold with a friendlier PG-13 rating. Just a tweak or two to the grim ending, even by simply completing the unresolved romantic subplot involving the earnest sailor Anthony Hope and the sadly imprisoned vision of blonde purity Johanna, could have sent general audiences out the swinging theater doors more likely to trumpet about their fun time in the movie house.

Instead, here is Sweeney Todd, all of its anger and brutality intact, even enhanced by the fearless proximity of the camera, getting so close to the acts of violence that the spilled blood sometimes coats the lens. This boldness is easily the greatest strength of Burton’s direction. It is a solid, commendable effort, but he also winds up constrained by the material. Save for the number “By the Sea,” with which Burton takes full advantage of the limitless possibilities of film, none of the staging is especially novel. Eventually, watching Sweeney again gaze longingly at one of his razors held up to the light or watching another fresh cadaver tumble through the trap door becomes redundant. Even Depp’s performance in the lead role falls prey to this problem. He alternates between dour, glaze-eyed contemplation and snarling cries for vengeance. He does well enough, but there’s not enough variety built into the role. Helena Bonham Carter has more to work with as Mrs. Lovett: More vulnerability, more devious humor, more spirit. She responds with her best work in years.

How this holds up as a representative of Sondheim’s swath of work is better determined by others more intimate with the land of orchestra pits and greasepaint. I most admire the song score when it’s flashing the sort of fizzy word acrobatics that I associate with Sondheim. It, and the story, is at its flattest when it turns to the tortured young lovers. Maybe the melodies in these sections achieve a grandeur or intricate beauty that’s beyond my tin ears.

What limitations Sweeney Todd has as a film seem built right into the very story construction that the filmmakers inherited. It’s hard to imagine a current director better suited to this material than Burton, with his proclivity for candy-coated darkness. He may very well have carried the film as far as it could go. If great films sing, Sweeney Todd hums.