Friday, December 29, 2006

I missed Life Is Beautiful; I'll probably watch The Tiger and the Snow twice to make up for it

Trailers can get in my head in either of two ways. Usually, it's quick and clumsy, by showing me a bunch of cool scenes set to brute force music, as happened with 300, Rocky Balboa, and most comic book movies. Funny thing - when it works that way, I usually get really excited about the trailer, but I often don't get to see the movie. I still haven't seen The Marine, for instance.

The other way it can happen, though, is more viral, and probably more effective in the long run. When there are a few disparate elements and approaches that engage me to the trailer and invite me into the movie, I tend to become fascinated with the idea itself, rather than simply enchanted by the music and the effects. That's how it worked with The Assassination of Jesse James, if you remember, and that's how it's working now, with The Tiger and the Snow.

I didn't see Life is Beautiful, the first movie by Roberto Benigni, who directed this one. I'd like it see it. I've heard it was good. Still, I'm a little skeptical about Nazi death camp films, especially when they're intent on drawing such a contrast between the desolation of the Nazis and the humor used to survive their oppression. I understand why culture, especially high-brow and intellectual culture, is still obsessed with the Holocaust, and I understand why we're still struggling to understand that time period, whether it's in mediated biographies like Maus or in fictional memoirs like Everything Is Illuminated. Even so, it's almost too much to see a dedicated fairy-tale humorist pitted against the concentration camps. That's why I never jumped at the chance to see Life Is Beautiful. There's simply too much weight to the premise of the film.

The Tiger and the Snow slips out from under that weight for a couple reasons, and these are a few among the reasons it caught my attention.

REASON THE FIRST: like Life is Beautiful, this film seems to balance its grave narrative themes (war, death, trauma) against a pervasive sense of levity and humor (strange animals in the streets, a goofy professorly type who consistently acts like a doofus). However, this contrast is much more salient to me, because the heavy themes of the movie are current. We don't have history and a body of scholarly work to distance us from the war in Iraq; it's real, we haven't settled on a way of understanding it, and the attempt to see it through the eyes of a hopeful romantic still seems like a daring experiment.

REASON THE SECOND: It's truly interesting to me that they present us with a genuine, old-world romantic hero. The main character seems to have a habit of translating all his experiences into poetry, and though this may not be to everyone's taste, it's definitely right up my alley. To me, this is one of the noblest heroes of modern cinema, because he lives, breathes, and thinks poetically. Optimism and sympathy are virtues that we take for granted in our protagonists, but for this balding professor-type, those are the only characteristics that mark him as heroic.

REASON THE THIRD: As if all the interesting imagery and emotional juxtaposition wasn't enough, they had to add Tom Waits into the mix. Is there anyone more perfect to fill in an auxiliary role in a movie like this? Tom is known for his unpredictable flirtations with both hopeless romance ("Downtown Train") and with gritty cynicism ("Swordfishtrombones"), and his presence in this film gives us a beautiful gateway into its emotional schizophrenia.

There was no punching or CGI in this trailer, but as I watched it, I discovered things that will make me love the film itself, rather than a few scenes or a key fight sequence. I hope to rewrite this entry in a few months, when I've seen this film; and when I do that, I hope I'll be able to confirm all these affectionate suspicions about this movie: that it's thoughtful, well-rendered, and fully satisfying to my sentimental needs.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Damn you, General Mills, you have taken French Toast Crunch and left me with an empty husk

Remember, a couple years ago, maybe, a beacon of hope showed up among the sugar cereals in the supermarket? It was a red box from General Mills with tiny slices of toast on it, reclining in your spoon, caressing your palate, dissolving in your stomach juices. It tasted like syrup. It didn't have that dusty, lingering sugar that coated Cinnamon Toast Crunch, its predecessor. It was FRENCH TOAST CRUNCH (from the makers of Cinnamon Toast Crunch), and it was SOOOO FREAKING GOOD.

After I devoured a box or two (this was probably back in high school), I stopped seeing French Toast Crunch in the store. I sort of gave up on it... like any number of mass-market masterpieces with limited lifespans (the FOX show Strange Luck is another good example), it sunk into oblivion. There was still Waffle Crisp, which was a reasonable substitute, and I eventually discovered Reese's Crunch, which helped me get over the loss of French Toast Crunch. Still, I never forgot.
Imagine my chagrin when I walked into my local Brooklyn bodega and found a yellow box, clearly a General Mills product, labeled French Toast Crunch this past week! I was SO HAPPY that they had resurrected my lost breakfast love that I didn't even really look closely at the box. I didn't notice the difference until I was home, and even then (much like this blogger), I wouldn't accept the truth. I thought they had screwed up the graphic on the cardboard.

But no. The truth is far worse... this was a French Toast Crunch blasphemy. It was a box, labeled with the name of my old love, containing some kind of crusty stuff that was nearly identical to Cinnamon Toast Crunch, except with little tan swirls. It didn't taste like syrup. It didn't look like toast. It was their extra CTC, repackaged and resold.
Is it better to die an honorable, unprofitable, and permanent death than to be reborn as an imitator? Would you accept a statue with your name at the base, but whose face is that of your friend's little brother who you don't care that much about? Look at these things. French Toast does NOT have sugar and frosty crunchiness on top. French Toast doesn't leave stuff on your fingers if you eat it straight from the box. I have seen the future, and I don't like it.

You may take everything, General Mills, but leave me my memories. I do not think it too much to ask.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Don't forget the Diva: Roberto Alagna walks off stage

Thanks to Roberto Alagna, world-class tenor, for walking off stage during an opera performance, thus turning a cliche back into a tradition.

Here's what I gather from the short BBC News article: Aida, an opera composed by (cospicuously Italian) Guiseppe Verdi, was being performed at La Scala, a world-famous opera house in Milan. I hope I haven't already lost your attention. During Alagna's performance of a song called Celeste Aria, the tough Italian crowd, which contained some pretty damn important people, started booing him. Enraged, Alagna walked off the stage. His duet partner was temporarily screwed; his understudy, Antonello Palombi, had to rush on-stage and continue the performance in his denim-wear.


Now, I don't know much about opera (obviously), but thanks to Wikipedia, I DO know that the word "diva" was originally used for female opera singers. We've been using it for bitchy adult alternative vocalists for so long that we've almost forgotten its origins; the first Urban Dictionary definition is as follows:

"a bitchy woman that must have her way exactly, or no way at all. often rude and belittles people, believes that everyone is beneath her and thinks that she is so much more loved than what she really is. selfish, spoiled, and overly dramatic."

There's also a lot of reference to diva being an over-used industry buzzword, and its association with lonely housewives and gay men. A few of the definitions mention the opera singer origins, but that's probably because those contributors looked at the same Wikipedia article that I did.

Luckily, we have Roberto Alagno to thank for reminding us what "Diva" really means. Sure, it's self-important, but it's a matter of being so irrationally proud of your art that you don't take shit about it. He walks off the stage as if to say, "Sure, diplomats and journalists, we have a deal... if you don't want to hear me sing, I don't want to sing for you. Humph!" When you're singing in an opera, you're licensed to be dramatic, and there's no better way to express yourself than to stomp off the stage.

Compare this to American celebrity freakouts. I'll give you two examples...

1) Michael Richards' situation, with the heckling, was kind of like Alagno's. He wasn't being appreciated, and he objected. Unfortunately, he couldn't manage the demands of his art (i.e. he couldn't "jujitsu" it, laugh it off, or take it lightly). Instead, he fucking FREAKED OUT and went on a racist rant that got his name in a lot more headlines than Roberto Alagno will ever manage.

2) Going back a little more, look at Ashlee Simpson's lip-synch faux pas on Saturday Night Live, October 25, 2004 (sorry about the quality of the clip... this video has mysteriously vanished from the Intertron). It resulted in a reaction that was similar to Alagno's... a miffed exit stage-right... but for what? An embarrassing lip-synch switch-up that revealed the authenticity of Ashlee's vocal talents. Not exactly an expression of pride in her art-form. Pretty sad, walking off because you were caught faking... if the crowd had actually booed her during her song, would she have walked off? Probably not, because her voice would have kept on singing.

So good job, Roberto Alagno... if you're not getting the respect you deserve, get off the stage, and do it proudly and angrily. Thanks for showing us the Diva as an indignant defender of his/her own precious performance... a role that still merits respect.