Saturday, November 29, 2008

Man from Midland

Last night I finally saw W., the Oliver Stone biopic of our decider-in-chief. I mostly admired it, especially the painfully studied performance of Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice and the grim determination of Josh Brolin as W. himself. Brolin's portrayal struck me as sympathetic, even though the film serves up plenty of Bush buffoonery.

Mostly W. brought me back to the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Back then I was, amid all the administration's interweaving justifications for war, baffled as to why the president was intent upon invading Iraq. It just didn't make sense to me, and I still am baffled. The movie floats a couple of explanations that at least are plausible -- that W.'s war was an Oedipal blow at his father, who spared Saddam; that the invasion was part of Dick Cheney's plan for total global domination.

But neither explanation seems sufficient. What I am mostly left with from the film is the scenes of Bush underlings bickering in the run-up to war, and these suggest another explanation, one that actually makes more sense to me than any other: That the war simply resulted from bureaucratic ineptitude. I'm thinking of the sort of blunder that can happen in any workplace: A bad idea is allowed to come to fruition only because no one stops it. In Stone's telling the members of Bush's war-making team are, many of them, limp yes-men, too weak to stand up to their boss, terrified of losing their sinecures. I include Secretary of State Colin Powell in that group -- he argues against the war up to a point, then accedes.

In this light the war is like the Edsel, or New Coke -- a poorly conceived product doomed to fail, the result of bureaucratic deliberations in an airless conference room, an embarrassing flop. Plus dead people.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Better dressed

Lately I can't get enough of What Not to Wear, the TLC makeover show that every week sees its two catty hosts destroying the ego of some wan schlub, then building it up again with structured jackets and pencil skirts.

What appeals to me most are those hosts, Clinton Kelly and Stacey London. For one thing, unlike many TV hosts, they come from the world of print journalism. I respect that. I think I may have heard Stacey London use the word gerund once, or was it Faustian. More than that, the two remind me of the University of Chicago undergraduates I went to college with: Overbearing, rather pretentious, given to lashing out, ultimately well-meaning. Reasonably attractive, also well-spoken. Doubtless deeply troubled, or they wouldn't dispense so much abuse.

Except that what really appeals to me most is Carmindy, the makeup maven. There's really no problem she can't fix with lip gloss.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Staying alive?

Random thoughts on Saturday Night Fever, which I had somehow never seen till last Friday night:

* Why did I deny myself this pleasure?

* The Brooklyn disco is much shabbier than I expected. I think that based on the promotional imagery, I expected the nightclub to be sleek and chic, almost like something out of science fiction. But it really just looks like the crummy neighborhood bar, except with a flashing plastic floor.

* That said, the film reminded me that in the disco era, when I was a lad of 7 or 8, I thought disco lights were wonderfully sophisticated and evocative, and I wanted nothing more than to decorate my bedroom with them. At the mall I would stand in the darkened, disco-light section of Spencer's and covet every whirling bulb.

* The line-dancing sequence to "Night Fever" made me weep a little. Like the other dance segments -- which are electrifying -- it is a moment of beauty, conviviality, focus in an otherwise depressing milieu of violence, racism, homophobia, desperation, chaos.

* The Bee Gees' "More Than a Woman" is perfect.

* It is chill-inducing to see iconic cinematic imagery in context. Yes, I nearly melted at the sight, finally, of Travolta in the white three-piece suit -- and was surprised to learn that when Travolta dances in the white suit, his face is grotesquely bruised and bandaged as a result of brutish street violence. The bandage doesn't appear in the promotional stills. Seeing Travolta in the suit reminded me of when, ten or so years ago, I went to see The Seven-Year Itch in a morning matinee at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. There I was, enjoying the film, and then suddenly the universe stopped turning as the moment arrived when Marilyn Monroe steps onto the subway grate and her skirt is blown up by the draft. My mouth went dry. I had never known that was in Seven-Year Itch! I think on some level it had never even occurred to me that this image was actually in a film, that it occurs as a moment in an unfolding narrative -- granted, as a searing, heartstopping non sequitur of a moment in an unfolding narrative. My mouth also went dry when I saw the white suit.

* The credit sequence, with Travolta strutting and swinging a paint can to "Stayin' Alive," is sheer joy.

* The disco is called the 2001 Odyssey, and the cinematic reference is striking. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Saturday Night Fever is a film about transformation, evolution, human development, about people striving to move beyond messy, violent origins. The flashing lights of the disco remind me of the psychedelic freakout segment of 2001, and the gracefulness of the dancing reminds me of 2001's elegant "Blue Danube Waltz" sequence, where the spaceships spin lazily around. Of course, one of the messages of 2001 is that even in the Space Age, man remains the animal that murders. I'm not sure the Disco Age is any less grim.