Well, I’ve been working on an analysis of Robert Wright’s fascinating book The Moral Animal, which ought to appear here soon. I’ve also been traveling by train and spending Thanksgiving with the family. All of this adds up to less blogging than I like, so here’s a little entry on various subjects, to be followed by more considered work later.
By the way, as I write this, Jon Stewart is taking Ariana Huffington apart for the ridiculous navel-gazing of much of her blogging. This post is mostly ridiculous navel-gazing. Sorry.
The train is not as much fun as it looks in those old movies. I didn’t get a sleeper, which might be part of it, but going coach is a lot like flying, only with more legroom, which you need because it takes FOREVER. Three days. Three days of sitting and looking out the window. Think about it.
To make things worse, I couldn’t work, because there were three electrical outlets on the whole train. On a train that takes two days to go from L.A. to Chicago. And is more expensive than the plane. I wanted to stick myself in the eye with a fork, but then I would have had to pay for food in the dining car. The dining car always looked like the best part of train travel, and had I been crossing the continent in the nineteenth century, it would have been. Back then, dining cars were full-on restaurants, and very good ones, with china and fresh coffee and probably a guy to rub your tummy and sing you songs while you digested your food. But now it’s pretty much a sub-par Denny’s where the dishes are plastic and the waitstaff have to waddle like ducks to keep from falling over.
I think the way to do it is to travel for a day, get off the train and stay somewhere for a night, poke around touristically for a few hours during the day, buy some food, and then get back on the train and travel for another day. Fourteen to sixteen hours is probably as much time as you want to spend on a train at once.
So the train was disappointing. I didn’t meet mysterious hottie Janet Leigh or a guy who would kill my shrewish wife for me or even a libertine chai-wallah. Just a largish seatmate who smelled like cigarettes and week-old pumpkin.
But speaking of chai-wallahs, for a couple of weeks I’ve wanted to write something about Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Like his Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, Slumdog is all about movement — dizzying, breathtaking, rocketing movement through the slums of Mumbai. Boyle’s is a spoiled, childish camera; it craves novelty and excitement, and it’s attracted to extremes. But as soon as it finds one startling image, it gets bored and looks for another one. So we’re shoved like the blade of a plow through torture, riots, children covered in shit, children dressed up like avatars of the gods, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, a British company’s call center where Indian street urchins fake Scottish accents, the view of Mumbai from a half-completed skyscraper, a death scene that seems like it dropped in accidentally on its way to a John Woo movie, and, finally, one of those awesome Bollywood musical numbers that makes everything all right.
This is by no means a bad thing, and I was riveted to the screen for the entire film. The only parts I didn’t find interesting were the love story that motivates the film and the philosophical musings about fate and chance. But those things are just pretexts for a clever flashback construction that allows us to peek into the lives of the less fortunate while holding out hope for them to overcome. Those familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers will be less than impressed at the seemingly miraculous set of events that places hero Jamal in the path of millions of rupees — after all, even if he wins, there are still hundreds of millions in India who are just as heroic and noble and yet go unrewarded — but Boyle’s acute vision of Mumbai’s poverty and its promise is worthy enough.
Frankly, I love it when Ebert has had enough and decides to abandon objectivity. Check out his review of Four Christmases — funnier and more coherent than the film itself. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon are pretty funny as a couple who don’t want to get married and spend holidays vacationing in Fiji while telling their families they’re doing charitable work with the poor. But when the movie contrives to send them home to see their families, things kind of fall apart. There are some laughs, but not many.
The Aero in Santa Monica played Five Easy Pieces last night — a much better, if also much grimmer, forced-to-go-home-and-confront-the-past movie. Jack Nicholson is a blue-collar drifter who can’t stand his girlfriend or his “cracker” friends at the oil rig where he works when he’s sober. We eventually find out why he can’t stand them, and why he’s such a bastard — he’s not blue-collar at all. He’s actually from a well-off family of classical musicians. Turns out old Jack is such a dick because he ran away from being a concert pianist to “find himself,” only to discover that PBR, bowling, and uncertain employment weren’t really his thing, either. I like that director Bob Rafelson and Nicholson were willing to commit to his bastardly behavior so fully, allowing his class prejudice and his guilt about it to stand naked on the screen. The incidental effect of this, though, is that all the women in the movie become punching bags for Jack’s verbal (and implied physical) abuse. It’s not a fun movie, and I’m not sure we learn a whole lot from it, but it’s certainly honest and direct, and there’s something satisfying about these early Hollywood Renaissance pictures with their rambling structures and portrait miniatures of genuine American oddballs. (The crazy woman Jack and his girl pick up on their road trip is worth the whole movie.)