2/5/11

Super What?


When the Super Bowl kicks off, I won’t be among the 100 million viewing the game this year. Football bores me, an admission that’s tantamount to proclaiming myself a leper in American culture. But each year the Super Bowl reminds me of the last time I saw even part of the game: 2001 in New Zealand. Those were the early weeks of the Bush administration. I should have known then that we were in for some tough times.


I saw bits of the 2001 game because I was coerced into attending a Super Bowl party. At the time I was a Fulbright scholar living in Wellington, New Zealand, and got a formal invitation from the U.S. Embassy to come watch the game. Less formally the local Fulbright office was told it would be a “good idea” for all American scholars to attend. We were supposed to project solidarity before nervous New Zealanders, since the Super Bowl came just weeks after the Supreme Court anointed Bush the victor in the stolen election of 2000. His impending reign was dreaded in Wellington; most Kiwis liked Bill Clinton, and they positively adored Carol Mosley-Braun, his ambassador to New Zealand. New Zealanders had hoped that a Gore victory would mean that Mosley-Braun would stay on in New Zealand.


Super Sunday did not begin well. In a harbinger of what would become Bush’s paranoid style in international affairs, I was accosted by a U.S. Marine for taking pictures of the outside of the embassy. Nine months before 9/11 some genius determined that my photos were a “security risk.” Inside the embassy the mood was one of startling contrasts—officious members of the Bush transition team looking like Stepford diplomats with their painted-on smiles and matching flag lapel pins on one side of the room, and the skeletal remnants of the Clinton staff hanging out with dazed New Zealand staffers on the other.


Someone had gone to trouble trying to make Super Sunday a “typical” American event, but that proved hilariously hard to pull off in a place 7,100 miles from Los Angeles. There was, for instance, a platter of hotdogs, which became one-bite items left on plates. Seconds were politely refused when offered by uniformed waiters, and with good reason. The wieners were what one might get if a bratwurst was crossed with corrugated cardboard. But they were positively scrumptious compared to the “rolls,” rock-hard zeppelins that might have been fresh a week or so earlier. They were also several inches longer and thicker than the hotdogs. The less said about the ketchup and the relish, the better.


Then there was the problem of the game itself. To say that academics are not your typical football crowd is an understatement; if they follow sports at all, most prefer baseball’s cerebral dimensions to football’s brute physicality. I had to ask who was playing and was surprised to learn that one of the teams was the Baltimore Ravens; I knew that the Colts had fled Baltimore, but I had no idea there was now a club named for Edgar Allen Poe’s poetic feathered foil. But I was an expert compared to the local embassy staff. For them, “football” was soccer and the rules of “American gridiron” as incomprehensible as the intricacies of cricket are to Yanks.


Most of the Fulbrighters gathered outside the TV room chatting about their respective projects, while the flag-lapel crowd hooted and booed in the wings. The day improved dramatically when we engaged the baffled New Zealanders huddled by the food table. One young diplomat asked me the charmingly phrased question, “Who do you favor in the gridiron match?” When I admitted I had no interest in the outcome and was far more interested in learning about New Zealand life, his face brightened and the verbal floodgates opened. Others joined in and conversation ensued over national idiosyncrasies, film, books, and cultural misunderstandings. The food came under the microscope, with New Zealanders proclaiming the baked beans tasty, the “crisps” (potato chips) too salty, and the hotdogs and coleslaw inedible.


One New Zealander looked furtively over his shoulder and confessed that he and other local staffers also had been ordered to attend the event, and that none had ever before seen American football. Anxiety ran deep over the highhanded attitudes of the incoming American staff. As our chats gravitated toward politics, every one of the Fulbright scholars was asked to explain the Bush-Gore election. (None of us could!) Every now and then a few staffers popped into the adjoining room for appearances’ sake, but the only part of the broadcast that received favorable comment was the halftime extravaganza; Britney Spears was then all the rage in New Zealand as well. I don’t recall who actually won the game, but I do remember an impromptu lesson on the glories of Jonah Lumu and New Zealand rugby, a sport I came to appreciate during my time in Wellington. To this day I follow New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, more than the entire of the NFL.


So I’ll be skipping the game on Sunday. I might, however, cook a really lousy hotdog and slap it into a stale bun just for old time’s sake.

2/2/11

Rabbit Hole Raw, Honest and Real


Rabbit Hole (2010)

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

91 mins. PG-13

* * * *

What would you do if the worst thing in the world happened to you? What would happen to the other relationships in your life? How much tolerance would you have for triviality and fools? How would you pick up the pieces of your life?


Hollywood has kept the tissue industry in business for decades with its “weepies.” But it’s okay because we know that in typical Hollywood fare something miraculous or marvelous will eventually happen to restore the characters. Except it doesn’t work like that in real life. Kudos to David Lindsay-Abaire for writing the play and screenplay Rabbit Hole, and kudos to director John Cameron Mitchell for filming it in a way that is deeply affecting and tugs at the heart strings, yet stays on the honest side of sentimental/sentimentality line.


Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play Becca and Howie Corbett, the essence of a power couple—well-heeled, attractive and living the dream life in a big house tucked snuggly in the leafy, safe, and serene suburbs. Until, that is, their world is shattered when their young son runs into the street and is killed by a teenaged driver. When we meet the Corbetts their sorrow weighs upon them like lead, and their interactions with others is equally leaden. Their marriage is coming apart at the seams, they know it, they want to stop it, but they are so deeply mired in the murk of despair that each is dead to any emotion other than rage. They attend couples grief counseling and all they feel is boredom and disgust. Becca can’t even talk to her mother, Nat (the always wonderful Dianne Wiest), without flying into rage when Nat compares her sorrow over losing her drug-addled adult son to Becca’s loss.


Enter redemption—sort of. Howie finds a kindred spirit in Gaby (Sandra Oh), who can do something he’s forgotten how to do: laugh. Becca’s path is trickier. She stalks, and then befriends, Jason (Miles Teller), the guiltless but not guilt-free young man who struck her son. He has something Becca needs to relearn: compassion. Rabbit Hole is a complex quadrangle that’s full of surprises, many of which come from not doing what most Hollywood films would do. John Cameron Mitchell isn’t afraid of complexity or darkness, as he has demonstrated in previous directorial efforts such as Shortbus (2006) and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). Smilarly, Linday-Abaire’s script is uncluttered by clich├ęs or blinding revelations. Don’t expect any of those over-the-top histrionic speeches that make for high drama, but are as phony as a politician’s tears. Don’t look for pat endings either. Those are for fairy tales; life is generally more ambiguous. Even God takes it on the chin in this film.


The acting is superb. Kidman continues to mature and her acting chops have begun to match her luminous exterior. Eckhart, for once, does not play a smarm king, and he proves capable to showing subtlety. He excels as a man facing numerous options and incapable of seizing any of them. The film’s revelation, though, is young Miles Teller. He is letter perfect as a man-child forced to confront adulthood when he’s still emotionally stuck in the comic-book fantasies of adolescence. It is absolutely criminal that Teller didn’t garner a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his portrayal of Jason.


Many films ask the question “How do we move on?” but Rabbit Hole has the courage to ask, “Can we?” It is a hard film in places, but one that is infinitely more human because it doesn’t gift wrap emotions. Some viewers have complained that the film doesn’t offer hope. I couldn’t disagree more. The film is loaded with messages, but some of them are as enigmatic as the riddles in Lewis Carroll’s anti-fairy-tale-fairy-tale Alice in Wonderland.

1/31/11

The Low Anthem an Indie Enigma


THE LOW ANTHEM

Oh My God, Charlie Brown

Nonesuch 519598-2

*** ½


As the Sundance Kid once queried, “Who are those guys?” This Providence, Rhode Island-based quartet gets classified as “indie folk,” mostly because no one knows how else to pigeonhole them. What else do you do with sweet country harmonies (“OMGCD”), trippy folk (“To Ohio”), and punk-tinged rock (“The Horizon is a Beltway”)? They seem to be all of these and a few other things as well. What they’re not is ordinary. Tell me you’ve seen lots of bands that throw a pump organ, a singing bowl, oboes, horns, cardboard box percussion, and a musical saw into the instrumental mix. I enjoyed this CD quite a bit and their live performance even more. Apparently David Letterman likes them too as they appeared on his show on January 12. I’ll just call them an intriguing enigma and encourage you to check them out for yourself. Their stuff is all over YouTube. Listen and if you’ve got a better handle for them, let me know.