Video Review: Beginners Much Better than Its Silly Trailer

BEGINNERS (2010–released 2011)

Directed by Mike Mills

Olympus Pictures, 105 mins. R (For no reason other than gay people are shown)

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Some movies fail because they suck and some because they can’t get mass distribution in a market dominated by just six studios. (That’s the fate of most independent, foreign, experimental, documentary, and non-linear films.) Then there are films that flop because their production companies don’t have a clue of how to market them. Place Beginners in the latter category; its worldwide box office was a paltry $14 million. I suspect most audiences avoided it for the same reason I did when it was in theaters: a dreadful trailer that promised to reduce gay people to swishy stereotypes.

I concede to gay friends and family that the movie has elements of swish and camp. Goran Visnjic is guilty of this; as the character Andy his acting palette has just two tones: the happy puppy-eyes look that precedes a hug, and the baleful downcast glance that it is usually followed by the line, “It’s because I’m gay, isn’t it?” (No; it’s because you’re acting as if you’re brain-damaged!) Visnjic’s mediocre performance signals that Beginners is no Long Time Companion; it’s not even Philadelphia. But that’s part of my point. What it’s also not is a “gay” film; it’s a film that happens to have gay characters, but whose center is a heterosexual relationship. And it’s not even about that. It’s really about what each of us find within ourselves when we stop playing expected social roles and take time to ask ourselves who we really are and what we really want. The title Beginners is ironic; it references the “Ah ha!” moment in which you finally make sense of something that has tripped you for years and begin to move on.

In the case of 71-year-old Hal (Christopher Plummer), it’s the liberation that comes after his wife Georgia (Mary Page Keller) dies–he can finally openly live the gay life he has craved since his adolescence. This revelation shocks his 38-year-old son Oliver (Ewan McGregor), but it also helps him clear leftover childhood trauma. It explains why his father was so both physically and emotionally absent, why his mother was morose, and why family conversations were like ships leaving different ports and moving in opposite directions. He also learns that Georgia was also trapped–by expectations that she be a dutiful housewife and not the bohemian flake that she really was. And it really explains why Oliver has t-shirts that last longer than most of his relationships.

As they say, a funny thing happens in the five years between his father’s coming out and his death. Hal and Oliver reconnect, but more to the point, Oliver observes his father’s joy­–first through judging eyes and then through his own sadness. When Anna (Mélanie Laurent) appears on the scene, Oliver is in the midst of deep depression and cynicism. Anna is a French version of his mother–free-spirited, blunt, and marching to a different drummer. She’s also drop-dead gorgeous and is attracted to Oliver. The film explores whether this relationship is as doomed as Georgia’s belief she could “fix” Hal, or if Oliver can find his inner joy before he turns 71 like his old man.

I can say not more except give this film a try on video. It’s way more intelligent that the trailer made it out to be. It’s certainly not a great film, but it is a diverting one that deserved better. And it’s definitely not a gay film. It does veer toward stereotype in several scenes–doesn’t Hollywood stereotype everyone?–but in an odd way it redeems itself. When the camera moves away from establishing (read: hit us on the head) shots that identify who is gay and who isn’t, the movie is at its best: gay people and straight people interact, carry the same emotional baggage, and do their best to help those they care about. You know; just like real life when people put aside all labels except “human.”


Noam Pikelny Makes Banjo Hip


Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail

Compass 4565

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I highly recommend Noam Pikelny’s latest solo banjo release. Yes, I know that most people associate banjo with the theme music for The Beverly Hillbillies, but trust me when I say that it’s been decades since that style of playing has been dominant. But you don’t have to take me at my word about Noam Pikelny. His band The Punch Brothers is one of the hottest acts in bluegrass music and Pikelny won the 2011 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Pikelny has shared stages with Martin, and in case you’ve been asleep, Martin doesn’t wield the banjo as a comedy prop; he’s won a Grammy and an International Bluegrass Music Association award with it.

Martin isn’t the only good company Pikelny keeps. Also assisting on this album are music industry luminaries such as Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas (Allison Krauss Band), Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still), and Chris Thile (Nickel Creek). Want some old-time music? Check out his duet with Martin on “Cluck Old Hen.” How about some whimsy? Any tune called “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer” will fit the bill, especially when wrapped in an arrangement that’s half bluegrass and half ‘30s-style string band. Desire a barnburner? Listen to Thile make his fingers do double duty to keep up with Pikelny on “Bear Dog Grit.” Looking to taste of something sweet? Pikelny turns down the noise and slows the pace so that O’Donovan can transform the Tom Waits composition “Fish and Bird” into something as delicate as a Kate Rusby offering. Don’t think a banjo album can be hip? Check this out and get back to me.

Here’s Steve Martin talking about banjo playing and being upstaged by Pikelny on The David Letterman Show.


Swamplandia a Snappy Novel

Swamplandia! (2011)

By Karen Russell

ISBN: 978-o-307-27668-1

Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is showing up on a lot of “Best Of” lists for 2011 novels and some reviewers have hailed it as their top choice. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it is a very impressive debut novel populated with unforgettable characters. If pressed for a sound bite, mine would something along the lines of: “Hard-luck losers mucking about wetlands trying to avoid being snapped up by a Leviathan named Seth.” Let me explain.

Russell’s story centers on the Bigtree family, an ensemble ensconced on a muddy island in the midst of the Okefenokee Swamp. The Bigtree surname is an invention of patriarch Samuel designed to make his poor white trash brood seem vaguely “Indian” and more exotic for tourists making their way from the mainland to witness the family enterprise: alligator wrestling. Samuel rules over his family and a dreary little theme park, Swamplandia, as the “Chief.” He’s equal parts deluded, bumbling, big-hearted, well intentioned, and clueless. He’s mainly inept and the family’s real center is its star, matriarch Hilola. She was born Jane Owens, but as Hilola she dives into an alligator pit, out swims them, and puts on a show by subduing one of the gators and taping its jaws shut. The Chief runs a family “museum,” hawks junky souvenirs, and mentally prepares his children to enter the family business by feeding them constant stories about the family’s fame on the mainland. The kids dutifully tend to the “seths,” the nickname given to all alligators because Hilola originally wrestled a monster called Seth on a billboard. (As The Chief explains, they kept the name because “advertising is expensive.”) The family’s alleged fame is mostly a load of swamp mud, but seventeen-year-old Kiwi and younger daughters Osceloa, 15, and Ava, 9, mostly believe it until their mom suddenly dies and Swamplandia is left entirely to The Chief’s stewardship. As you might expect, that doesn’t go well.

Swamplandia! begins as a quirky book about lovable losers, but it becomes something murkier and sadder. When Hilola dies, the tourists stop coming, Kiwi bolts for the mainland, and The Chief soon follows–ostensibly to raise money for a new scheme that will win back tourists from a mainland amusement park. We watch as the Bigtrees replace one set of myths with equally implausible ones. Kiwi lands a job at the rival theme park, where he practices using big words and dreams of going to Harvard, though he’s just flunked his GED exam. Nobody knows where The Chief has gone, and the two girls remain on the island. Osceola disappears into Ouija boards, séances, and imagination. When an abandoned 1930s-era dredge floats into Swamplandia’s waters, Osceola announces she is betrothed to the ghost of a young man who died on the boat; one day she too disappears. The guts of the book evokes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness–Ava’s journey into the heart of the swamp in search of her sister. Her guide is a creepy Deliverance-like figure known only as The Birdman.

The Conrad reference works on another level, if one considers that the Bigtrees call alligators “seths.” Set­–rendered Seth by the Greeks–was the Egyptian god of darkness and chaos. He’s the one who killed and disemboweled his brother Osiris and then poked out the eye of Osiris’s son Horus, who in turn castrated Seth. The blind eye, darkness, chaos, the spirit world…. All of these are good metaphors for this novel. Could we even see Sam as emasculated once his Chief illusion is shattered? You tell me when you rediscover him in Swamplandia!

Russell raises big issues in her novel, not the least of which is the question of how families such as the Bigtrees are supposed to cope. Take away their fantasies and what, precisely, do they possess? She creates indelibly memorable characters, makes us feel Ava’s peril and the slither of the swamp, and takes us inside a world where few of us would wish to enter any way other than vicariously. At some point in the journey she’s a little lost herself and the novel’s resolution feels like a deus ex machina worthy of one of Osceola’s séances. But one can forgive such slips in the midst of such fecund storytelling.