Friday, November 07, 2003

Cripes, I've been one slack motherblogga. Almost two months without a post. Let's try'n redress the balance...

LAST MOVIE WATCHED (THEATER): Lost in Translation.

Lots of ink has been spilt in the name of Sofia Coppola's sophomore directorial effort already (of the sort that translates into just enough buzz to slide it into the local googolplex for a two-week run attended by a sparse smattering of suburban cineastes and people who couldn't get in to The School of Rock), which would be enough to make me clam up no matter how much I liked the thing - a little hype is a dangerous thing; a lot of hype might lead to mass prolapse - but, screw it, sing it out, soap it on the windows and leave a flaming bag of praise on every doorstep, this is a fine, fine movie. The things that the film's detractors keep pointing trembling fingers at (the lack of an iron-clad, Syd Field-approved plot matrix, the repeated shots of Scarlett Johanssen's backside) work just beautifully for me (that long, languorous opening shot of Ms. J's glutes works symbolically, you see, both stripped down and restless, much like the two main characters... aw, who'm I kiddin'? Drool*).

But as adorable (cutest baby fat in the biz) and convincing as a young woman adrift as Scarlett is, it's Bill Murray's show all the way. Of course, we all knew that. If he doesn't steal the show, it's not worth pilfering. Murray's screen persona, the thing that's given him far more staying power than any SNL vet to adapt their schtick to a larger canvas, is a kind of focused non-committment. Few performers have ever put quite so much energy into looking like they were just dropped off at the set minutes before shooting; his cinematic CV is full of wry, (at least seemingly) improvised asides and deliveries of written lines that clearly signal to the audience, "Yeah, I know, I'm not buying any of this either." Which, of course, is nothing special in and of itself - most comic actors these days aren't really actors (and many ain't that comic, either), they're basically shpritzbots plunked in the middle of a moribund celluloid wasteland and expected to power the whole works by themselves. The persona's the thing, which leads to either a sputtering mania that sucks all the life out of its surroundings (Jim Carrey, Robin Williams) or a smirky, superior indifference that makes everything around them irrelevant (Chevy Chase) - after all, if they don't care to get involved in what's going on around them, why should we? But there was always more to Murray than that - never as offputting nor as chilly as his comedic lessers, he's mastered a sly and impressive balancing act, not just the ability to be in the scene and apart from it simultaneously, but also the means to use that disconnection to draw the viewer in, (often) being the exemplar of silliness while somehow convincing you that there's something in the silliness that matters. (His closest showbiz equivalent is David Letterman, a guy who shares much of the credit/blame with Murray for ushering in the Age of Irony but who, over time, has revealed himself as the only sincere fellow in the superficial miasma of late-night talk - his every exasperated aside and disbelieving glance into the camera shows a refreshing lack of patience for show-biz bullshit, and, when it counts, has thrown aside the nutty entertainer mask altogether to share a humanity and sensitivity with scarcely a trace of mawkishness [his return from a quadruple-bypass operation, his moving post-9/11 monologue, and the full hour he gave to his dying friend Warren Zevon being the most obvious examples].)

This quality, always there even in the worst movies he's done (he expended so much energy in Charlie's Angels trying to remain steadfastly above his surroundings while affecting a laid-back, casual air that somehow still broadcast to the faithful that he's absolutely miserable being there that he, the least hyperkinetic aspect of the movie, was absolutely exhausting to watch), has been recognized and utilized by some of our more inventive young directors - well, two of them, at least. Maybe three, pending proof of Michael Almereyda's age. Wes Anderson's Rushmore, of course, finally managed to convince certain people that Murray is indeed an actor rather than just a walking smirk (something that some of us already knew, dammit - he may have worked just a bit too hard in the live-TV-redemption scene at the end of the much-maligned [but pretty durned clever and funny, despite Richard Donner's sledgehammer direction] Scrooged, but watch carefully when they run it this holiday season and notice how skillfully he peels away the layers of nastiness in Frank Cross and, beneath the mania, clearly shows exactly how each one crusted over him in the first place), but, if anything, Coppola captures Murray's inner Emmett Kelly even better than Anderson did there (and definitely more than Anderson did in The Royal Tenenbaums, despite a couple of crackerjack deadpan line readings from Murray). Murray's of-it-but-somewhat-out-of-it demeanor suits a picture whose theme is dislocation (temporal, spatial, emotional, spiritual - it's all there). He's never quite fit his surroundings (slightly awkward height, stomach, face), but here it's ramped up - everything in Tokyo is just a little too dark/bright/loud/quiet/fast/slow, a place where even images of yourself look alien. (One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Murray's [unlikely, yeah, but in a world where Steven Seagal continues to get even straight-to-video-worthy roles instead of being shot in the head and dumped in a desert grave, I'm willing to suspend disbelief] American action star runs across one of his old pictures on the hotel TV, a perfect cobbled-together abstraction of his life's work in a few seconds: one shot of a younger Murray [looks like the "Samurai Hit Man" sketch from SNL], one shot of a grimacing chimp, one shot of a car crash.) In such an environment, you gravitate to anything even vaguely familiar you can find, bad news for a fading star still prone to being pestered by fans (a situation, other than the "fading" part, to which Murray can certainly relate), good news in that contact with your fellow aliens can sometimes produce surprise confidantes, even soulmates. Not that fiftysomething Murray and somethingteen-playing-twentysomething Johanssen get up to anything creepy or gross (though the food at that one restaurant...shudder), which is a big relief. What they get up to (even without the meaningful, charged-but-chaste touch they share on the hotel bed) is far more intimate than mere May-December porking anyway. (not finished yet. starting to wheeze. i'm trying, lord, i'm trying...)

* Query: She's 18 now, so it doesn't matter either way, but if a girl under the age of consent plays a character over the age of consent, is it okay to lust after that character?

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