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Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Tightrope Walker

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2010 at 1:24 am

“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Overman — a rope over an abyss.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

We were at the WYEP concert, sitting in the grass, when the guy appeared. He was skinny and bore curly hair — just an ordinary guy, maybe mid-20’s, stringing a rubber hose between two trees. By the time we noticed him, he had already fastened on end to a trunk, and he was stretching the “rope” across the lawn.

It was unnerving. There was no announcement, no sign, just a guy and his gear. As the Boogie Hustlers played in the background, we watched this guy calmly, silently tie up the other end, then jump onto the taut hose. He wobbled and bounced, but at last he could stand straight — and walk.

Like any good acrobat, he built his act gradually. What began as a simple balancing act evolved into a tense walk down the line. After about 15 minutes, he started to incorporate juggling.

Spectators began to crowd around. When he dropped the ball, a man tossed it up to him. Finally, the guy dismounted and helped strangers balance on the line. Cameras clicked. Passersby smiled and pointed. And never once did I hear him utter a word.

Even the one time he bit it.

The Role of a Lifetime: 7

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Photograph of Fred Betzner, Christy Leonardo, Brad Stephenson in SEX a.k.a. Wieners & Boobs. 

There are plenty of other types of roles, especially for ensemble casts, and many are worthy of accolades and awards. Helen Mirren and Forrest Whitaker played real-life heads of state, and they deserved every adoring word for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. Sean Penn played Harvey Milk, and his was one of the most astonishing impersonations in recent history. But the Role of a Lifetime requires actors to grovel in the dust. It has become something of a self-parody – to seek a character in the worst circumstances, then play that person to a T. The role must be first-person, introspective, dominant throughout. Weeping and breakdowns are encouraged. Moments of personal weakness are requisite. Hopeful endings are not.

It’s remarkable that Hollywood allows such grim tales, especially in an era of swollen patriotism. Just as critics lambaste the usual blockbusters – Transformers 3, The Expendables – it’s relieving to know that strong actors can embrace America’s dark side. There is no reason for a strong actor to play anything but heroes – dashing, intelligent, self-starting heroes – especially veterans like Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Nicolas Cage and Colin Firth. They’ve all made their share of action movies and romantic comedies, but pursuing a Role of a Lifetime requires a certain amount of risk. Awards don’t always equal money and fame, and a great performance never entitled actors to stardom. Indeed, a great performance doesn’t even mean a great movie. But it says a lot about the actor who tries. Acting is about taking risks, after all.

The Role of a Lifetime: 6

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Photograph of Christy Leonardo, actor.

Such roles can seem competitive – who will nab Hollywood’s most tragic protagonist? Will it be Colin Firth in A Single Man, playing a gay, suicidal teacher whose lover has died? Or will it be Jared Leto, who gained 70 lbs. to play John Lennon’s toad-like assassin in Chapter 27? Some actors have become lifelong sad-sacks, such as Paul Giamatti, who suffered onscreen as an awkward cartoonist in American Splendor and a broke, divorced schoolteacher in Sideways (also, he steals money from his own mother. Why? To get drunk in Napa). The most shocking example is Bill Murray, who has become an icon of late-life crisis: a lousy father and pothead in The Life Aquatic, a washed-up actor (and lousy father) in Lost in Translation, and a former playboy-turned-loner in Broken Flowers (and again, a lousy father). Murray’s come a long way since Meatballs.

Even comedies have come to embrace the Role of a Lifetime. George Clooney shows charisma and devilish good looks in Up in the Air, but he was instantly lauded as an Oscar contender – for playing a homeless, rootless, workaholic “corporate downsizer,” who fires people for a living. For a comedy, Up in the Air has a disquieting end: Ryan Bingham loses his girlfriend and remains lonely and airborne, probably forever. The same goes for The Informant!, in which a flabby, bald, incompetent Matt Damon embezzles millions of dollars out of a Midwestern corporation. Damon and Clooney stretched for their roles, and they succeeded – and their characters are misguided failures, right to the end.

The Role of a Lifetime: 5

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Photograph of Wali Jamal, actor, writer, monologuist and multimedia producer.

Some roles are downright pathetic. In Two Lovers, Leonard dates one girl while plotting to run away with another. Yes, he’s depressed and suicidal, he lives with his parents and takes photographs of barren streets, but he’s also cheating on a really sweet young woman. When they get engaged, Leonard doesn’t have the courage to tell his fiancée that he’s skipping town with a mysterious blonde, who just happens to be his self-obsessed neighbor. Instead, he goes ahead and plots his escape. When this plan ends badly, we’re forced to ask: Is Leonard just a big kid with woman issues? Or is he kind of an asshole? Either way, Joaquin Phoenix clearly relished the part.

The most shocking character is Julia, Tilda Swinton’s shaky alcoholic, who seems perfectly content to crush a stranger with her car and kidnap a child in order to make some quick dough. The critics regaled Swinton with kind words, and the accolades were well-deserved – but Julia is probably the most immoral character of the bunch. In this Role of a Lifetime, Swinton is slutty, selfish, narcissistic and abusive of children – and she shoots a guy in the head, showing no remorse. Does she deserve our respect when she saves the boy from the Mexican mafia? Hard to say.

The opposite situation is the full-blown victim: someone who wants to live an ordinary life, but can’t. Hilary Swank’s character in Boys Don’t Cry could only exist by pretending to be male, until she’s discovered, raped and murdered. Or there’s Charlize Theron in Monster, who starts as a prostitute and ends up as a serial killer. And gets the death sentence.

The Role of a Lifetime: 4

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Photograph of Eric Donaldson, actor, musician and stand-up comedian; Dave Wheeler, musician.

Or take The Wrestler, where Mickey Rourke is also a broke outlier who spends his only cash on booze and strip-clubs. His body is a wreck, he’s hard-of-hearing, his daughter is estranged (and grows to hate him even more as the movie proceeds), and the only thing that keeps him going is a hackneyed career in pro-wrestling. As if living in a van in a New Jersey trailer-park wasn’t enough, Randy “The Ram” Robinson staples himself, smashes his head with windows, and pumps his veins with steroids, all for a little scratch. The lesson: It’s better to die gloriously in the ring than live as a loveless, part-time deli clerk.

These characters have a lot in common: They once lived “well,” but they made terrible mistakes, and now their lives are effectively over. Like Ben Sanderson, they all struggle with addiction and their bank accounts are empty. They have failed, and unless they make some critical decisions, they will keep failing. When we meet them, they’ve been clinging to the end of their rope for some time.

Let’s be blunt: The Roles of a Lifetime are inherently un-American. These people are whiny, clingy, desperate, and irresponsible. They have no marketable skills and they wallow in self-defeat. The Role of a Lifetime explores failure, which is the very thing Americans most abhor, and we’re asked to empathize with ugly strangers, which is doubly off-putting. We’re loathe to watch a vivid portrayal of someone crashing and burning – but this is why Roles of a Lifetime are so revered. The actors live out our biggest fears, with incredible realism, on a large screen, in the dark. They prey on our discomfort, the way horror movies tinker with our disgust. We don’t want to show sympathy for freaks and antiheroes, but we do. And that’s why we praise them.

The Role of a Lifetime: 3

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Photograph of Fred Betzner, writer, actor and comedian.

Now, the Role of a Lifetime is back in earnest. In the past decade, we’ve seen a renaissance among Hollywood actors trying out serious dramatic films. As cinema, they’re pretty straightforward; directors don’t gussy-up these films with stunning landscapes and slick editing. Close-up shooting and handheld cameras are in vogue. Indie directors now let their actors act. And if there’s one thing critics love, it’s a broke, misguided, washed-up, booze-addled drop-out who is struggling to even survive, much less find something like happiness.

When Love Liza opens, Joel’s wife has just killed herself. Joel tries everything – vacation, a new job, model airplanes, an awkward date – but the only habit that kills the pain is huffing gasoline. In the end, Joel walks away from his house (which is burning to the ground), wearing only a pair of briefs. As Americans, we’re trained to believe that Joel’s life will improve, but it doesn’t; after two hours of despair and chemical addiction, Joel ends up with even less than he had. Phillip Seymour Hoffman won a host of accolades for Love Liza, and deservedly so: Joel rides a rollercoaster of emotions, until his life ends in oblivion.

While Love Liza is particularly bleak, this kind of story has become very popular. In Sherrybaby, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a paroled heroin addict who is barely allowed to see her own daughter. She was molested as a child (by her father), she sleeps with strangers, she picks fights with her halfway-housemates, and sexual favors are her only means of getting a job. Juxtapose this with Crazy Heart, where Jeff Bridges is a once-famous Country singer, now broke, alcoholic, and playing tired old songs in southwestern dive-bars. It’s only when he loses his girlfriend’s son at the mall that “Bad Blake” decides to clean up, but by then it’s basically too late.

The Role of a Lifetime: 2

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 3:32 pm

The Role of a Lifetime is an old phenomenon: When Gibson Gowland starred in Greed, in 1924, he played McTeague, a poor, dim-witted, unlicensed dentist married to a money-obsessed harpy. Eventually, McTeague beats his wife to death, then tries to escape to Mexico, but he is pursued by his wife’s ex-suitor, and they both die in the desert. The director, Erich von Stroheim, demanded authentic shooting locations, and Gowland had to perform in the infernal heat of Death Valley, among other unpleasant places. The final picture was over 10 hours long, with Gowland acting in almost every frame. Even shortened to two hours, Greed demonstrates how McTeague is the Role of a Lifetime: In the final shot, McTeague is still alive, but he’s handcuffed to the man he just murdered. The camera pulls back, and we see that there’s no water, no escape, no other human company. McTeague will die alone, literally shackled to his own sins.

In the 1970’s, the Role of a Lifetime became popular because it fit the themes of the decade: Man vs. Society. Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro made a slew of pictures about ordinary guys who fall through society’s cracks. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Five Easy Pieces, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon – they all show un-heroic characters slogging through nightmarish lives. They end, respectively, in lobotomy, family abandonment, divorce and imprisonment, triple-homicide and a 20-year jail sentence. The finale of each film is usually described as “ambiguous.”

The Role of a Lifetime: 1

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 3:28 pm

An essay I considered sending to The Believer. I have since reconsidered, since they never respond to my queries. Photograph of actors Brad Stephenson and Allison Fatla, from a Pittsburgh production of SEX, a.k.a. Wieners & Boobs.

In 1995, Nicholas Cage won an Academy Award for Best Actor. He also won a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and a dozen other awards from local film critics’ associations. He was nominated for a BAFTA, a Chlotrudis, an Independent Spirit Award, and a London Film Critics Circle Award, all for best actor.

The film was Leaving Las Vegas. Cage played Ben Sanderson, a jobless, tactless, suicidal alcoholic who moves to Las Vegas in order to drink himself to death. In an early scene, he packages all the belongings in his empty house – empty because his family has left him – and burns them in a bonfire. Sanderson eventually meets a luckless prostitute (Elizabet Shue), who turns out to be the only woman who understands him. After a long, subversive relationship, they make love, and he dies. His final word is, “Wow.”

To this day, after appearing in 60 feature films, Nicholas Cage is still most revered as “a serious actor” for Leaving Las Vegas. There have been other high points, such as his collaborations with David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Spike Jonez and the Coen Brothers. But Leaving Las Vegas is the pinnacle of his dramatic career. Ben Sanderson is the character who racked up the big-time awards. He is “the role of a lifetime.”

And who is Ben Sanderson? A drifter, an addict, a john, and, ultimately, a man who kills himself.

This has become the tradition: The Role of a Lifetime is an obscure, miserable, lonely, self-destructive loser caught in a whirlpool of loss and bad decisions. The role is the lead character, and often it’s also the name of the movie. This character appears in almost every scene, slinking from one horrible situation to the next. Halfway through the film, this tragic soul dares to hope for a better future. Will that hope be redeemed? Sometimes things get better. Other times, he screws a prostitute and dies in a strange hotel.

Best of City Paper: 3

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2010 at 12:03 am

Photograph of cyclist, taken through windshield of speeding car, North Park.

“The old joke is that Playboy is read ‘for the articles.’ But nobody claims to read National Geographic.”

“Sure everybody wants to read Crime and Punishment. What cocktail party would be complete without a hearty debate about Slavic existentialism?”

“If you’re blessed with visions, the Torah treats you well.”

“As art-forms go, photography is fairly new. Cro-Magnon men were painting on cave walls 30,000 years ago, and sculpture is older than the pyramids. Photographs date to 1825.”

“Sometimes, people just outdo their muses.”

“For a culture founded by Stoics, governed by Fascists and built by slaves, the Romans had a remarkably good sense of humor.”

“Americans love Cockney gangsters. In cinema, the U.S. imports heaps of British crime thrillers, such as Snatch, Sexy Beast, The Limey, Croupier and The Bank Job. We love their snarling grins, their onslaught of weird slang and filthy words. We envy their patchwork hipster fashion and guyish slouches. We marvel at their hackneyed schemes, which always get muddled by stupid mistakes and crossed wires. We forgive their casual racism, their chain-smoking and perpetual boozing. And who makes graphic violence more fun than a North London thug? Shootings? Stabbings? Mauling by man or beast? Nobody does it better.”

“Being a hobo ain’t easy. For starters, where do you shower? How do you scrape together enough nickels to buy yourself a sandwich? Sleeping on a soggy mattress by the river must get tiresome, and hopping trains is risky business. How many bridges do you have to sleep under to finally give up, shave off the gnarly beard and order a Social Security card? Still, there’s something romantic about the hobo life — all that freedom, all the open sky. While most of us work multiple jobs and collect superfluous gadgets, all a hobo needs is a knapsack and a can of beans. The vagrant American has a ragged mystique; he’s a gleaner, a tinker, a writer of garbled poetry. He always seems to have met a guy (in Columbus, in Wichita) who did something incredible (nursed a dog, juggled knives).”

“If National Geographic offers nothing else, it’s the reassurance that our planet is still full of revelations.”

“At its core, The Grapes of Wrath is a horror story. But instead of madmen or poltergeists, the slayer is capitalism.”

Best of City Paper: 2

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2010 at 12:01 am

Photograph of Steelers fan, Shadyside, during Super Bowl XLIII.

“Consider the Polaroid. Its apparatus is big and simple and plastic. It doesn’t look like a camera so much as a toy camera. The flash is automatic, no matter what a light-meter might read. The near-instant pictures — flapped in the air by impatient photographers — are glossy to the touch, nicely pre-framed in thick, white photo paper. But Polaroids are almost always alarming: They reveal a split-second that occurred only minutes earlier. They are a time-capsule designed for the near-future, a disarmingly accurate portrait of what just happened. The people and objects in the picture aren’t just familiar; they’re still here. Children wave their Polaroids in the air, pointing at the image, as if to exclaim: “See this? This is what we look like when we’re not paying attention!”

“My Dad calls them ‘shouting plays.’ In each, we meet a dysfunctional family, usually at home, and slowly they unveil their darkest secrets. These scandals could be about anything — affairs, stolen money, made-up children or missing dogs named Sheba. As tensions mount, voices rise, until everybody is screaming at each other. Of all possible settings for human drama to unfold, it’s amazing how many plays take place in ordinary living rooms. Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee — most of them never left the den.”

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t really about anything: It’s just a cute romantic comedy about Greek lovers lost in the forest, and the goofy gods who meddle with them. Yes, there are love potions and faerie dances, polite sex jokes and hilarious insults. The horrid actor Nick Bottom transforms into a mule and scores a date with Titania, Queen of the Faeries, but the chaste bestiality of Midsummer amounts to only harmless fun. Even for a Shakespearean comedy, Midsummer is practically plot-free.”

“Ah, the celebrity biography: As literature goes, they’re almost as prestigious as cookbooks and crossword puzzles.”