Say Something in Chinese

For a few weeks every summer I escape the humidity of Brooklyn and go to Oakland, California. I stay on a street that runs off an iron drawbridge into the town of Alameda. Alameda sits on an island in the San Francisco Bay. To me, Alameda is an enchanted place. It is everything you want America to be but never is. When I retire, I'd like to move there and run for mayor.

Film Column 3

The Alameda Theatre

For a few weeks every summer I escape the humidity of Brooklyn and go to Oakland, California. I stay on a street that runs off an iron drawbridge into the town of Alameda. Alameda sits on an island in the San Francisco Bay. To me, Alameda is an enchanted place. It is everything you want America to be but never is. When I retire, I’d like to move there and run for mayor.

Alameda is Spanish for “tree-lined avenue.” The town’s wide streets are also lined with Hawaiian barbecue joints and uncrowded cafés, shops that sell used furniture and bars with neon signs that open at 9 a.m. The streets end in shopping centers anchored by giant new supermarkets filled with brightly colored produce. The newest one, according to a circular I picked up, offers “personal watermelons,” perfectly round watermelons a little smaller than a basketball. I think the phrase “personal watermelons” sums up California. It should be on the California license plate, the same way it says “Famous Potatoes” on license plates in Idaho.

Alameda also sits on a major fault line. It could be swallowed by the sea at any moment. There used to be a Coney Island there called Neptune Beach, where the popsicle and the sno-cone were invented, icy novelties as all-American as Nathan’s hot dogs.

Alameda has a history with the movies. The film producer Robert Lippert was a native. He got his start as a movie theater projectionist there, then bought his own movie theater, then moved to Hollywood to produce cheap westerns. In the late 1940s and early 1950s he released Samuel Fuller’s first films and introduced the cinema to the Garutso Balanced Lens, a split diopter apparatus invented to compete with 3D by heightening screen realism. It kept foreground and background in focus at the same time. Fans of Brian De Palma or Raúl Ruiz know the effect well.

A lot of Hollywood movies are shot in Alameda. The Net, with Sandra Bullock, features scenes filmed on the bridge near where I stay. There’s a huge soundstage in town, at a decommissioned Naval base. The Matrix movies were shot there; Alameda is where the Wachowski Brothers unleashed bullet time.

Bullet time and the livin’ is easy. Summer in Alameda is pretty idyllic. It only lacked one thing: a movie theater. The previous two summers I watched with anticipation as the Alameda Theatre, an abandoned art deco movie house in the middle of town, was slowly turned into an eight-screen cineplex.

The theater, with its three-story neon sign, is the town’s centerpiece. I’d watched the summer before as workers restored the lobby. Photos on boards in the construction office showed how the theater would be made into a palace again, with oriental motifs throughout, carpeting patterned with an intricate design, golden balusters on the mezzanine.

This was great. I wouldn’t have to drive into Oakland or Berkeley to catch a movie anymore. I’d be able to walk to the Alameda Theatre. My vacation spot would be complete. I was looking forward to seeing a movie on each screen, no matter what it was. I’d see WALL-E, if that’s what it came to, even though I lose interest in cartoons over ten minutes long. I’d watch Mamma Mia, if that’s what they were showing, even though I find it hard to relate to anyone for whom Abba is historical.

I landed at the Oakland airport in late July with a vision of the new Alameda Theatre fixed in mind. I saw myself on Central Avenue at night, gazing up at the theater’s neon sign, lit for the first time in years. I saw myself marveling at the new lobby as I went in, looking for a seat in the plush auditorium. I pictured myself settling in as the first trailer began, ready to be overwhelmed by the new sound system and underwhelmed by—I didn’t know by what. Hancock? I didn’t care. The cinema lived again in Alameda.

Reader, it was not to be. Right when I got into town a headline blared at me from a newspaper box on a street corner. “Alameda Labor Dispute Hinges on Skills of Projectionists,” read the front page of the East Bay Express, the area’s alt-weekly. The projectionists at the Alameda Theatre were on strike. The theater’s owner refused to hire union operators. Shows were starting late and breaking down, prints were scratched and dirty. Audiences were leaving with black clouds over their heads. Incompetents were manning the equipment and the owner didn’t care. He offered no excuses. Digital projection would replace film projection any day now, any second, he said, and “when I convert to digital there is no projectionist. There’s no projectionist anymore. I am trying to make them understand that.”

He was dreaming about a day when the machines would run themselves at the same time as he was talking out his ass. I walked by the theater to make sure the strike was on. It was, in a California way. Some guy was sitting in a folding chair with flyers in his lap. There was no blowup rat, no pickets that night, nobody chanting slogans. Still, I couldn’t go in. I used to be a movie theater projectionist. I couldn’t cross the line.

The city of Alameda poured over thirty million dollars into bringing the Alameda Theatre back to life, partnering with an owner who was now barking at reporters. He didn’t care about the quality of presentation in the town’s new showplace. He had no interest in hiring skilled labor and wasn’t concerned with the future of the medium to which his boondoggle was a shrine. The Alameda Theatre was a glowing airplane hangar with fancy carpeting and a parking garage attached, a monumental excuse to sell Milk Duds under a glass counter. The films showing there—Swing Vote with Kevin Costner, Journey to the Center of the Earth with Brendan Fraser—weren’t worth paying to see.

The city used taxpayers’ dollars so its citizens could pay to see Swing Vote. Even for thirty million dollars they couldn’t buy their way out of that. The circus of superheroes, Batman and the rest, had come to town. But who pays the circus to come to town? You pay the circus to leave.

Would the ghost of the projectionist-turned-showman Lippert be proud or disgusted, wondering why he couldn’t get the city to hand over thirty million dollars back in his day, before he left for Los Angeles? Maybe crappy Hollywood movies are the God-given right of every medium-sized city now, like a fourth-place hockey team, but there are other movies to see. Just not in Alameda.

Free Movies That Matter

But where? The people of the East Bay could tell I was looking. At the farmer’s market at Lake Merritt, where the produce is so abundant they force samples on you, somebody handed me a leaflet. “Free Movies That Matter,” it read. “You’re invited to Free Evenings of Pizza, Film, and Conversation.”

Twice each month on Friday nights, the leaflet said, the Harmony Center for the Joyful Spirit hosts movies at the “Home of Gwendolyn and Daniel.” The mission of Oakland’s Harmony Center is to bring “Joy and Inspiration into our lives.” “What better way to do that then to get together with friendly people for an informal meal, enjoy a great film, and then have a lively discussion of the ethical and spiritual lessons of the film?” the leaflet asked. It described Gwendolyn and Daniel’s “24th floor penthouse apartment with a ‘top of the world’ view” where “movies are shown on our 58-inch plasma HDTV with Dolby Digital Surround Sound.” Instructions followed: “If possible, please call or email with your choice of pizza, meat or veggie. Please note that we maintain a shoeless household.” Now I knew I was in California. And I knew what being in California meant: no matter how spiritual the discussion, the pizza would suck.

The next great film planned for G and D’s was a movie from five years ago, House of Sand and Fog with Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, “a gripping exploration of the American dream gone awry” that I’d missed on purpose when it came out. Was this what moviegoing in the Bay Area had become, a shoeless pizza party “Celebrating the Divine in Each of Us” around a big TV? I decided this vacation movies were best avoided. I’d tour the countryside instead.


California is death-haunted compared to New York. Everything is still and spooky, the grass along the highways north of Oakland is dry and brown. New York moves in the frame-skip fast-forward of digital video. One thing replaces another, they build an Ikea in no time by paving over cobblestone streets in Brooklyn and they demolish buildings from the 1850s to do it. In New York, even the ghosts get priced out. In the quiet towns of Marin and Contra Costa counties, they linger.

Crockett, a town of about 3,000 people under the massive Carquinez Bridge on the Carquinez Strait, was once home to 46 bars. The imposing C&H sugar refinery was running at full swing then when all those bars were open. It still operates, but at half capacity, and still looms over the town, which the sugar makes smell like candy. Railroad trains stop in Crockett to load white sugar, but passenger trains don’t. There’s one bar left, the Club Tac, a hall too large for the lunchtime drinkers who assemble there. The little railroad station in town is now the Crockett Museum.

Old Crockett men, veterans of World War II and Korea, spend their days at a big table in the main room of the museum, chatting amiably with visitors who wander among pictures of them as younger men dressed for war. An accordion in a glass case is the same one you see in pictures of a local man named Babe entertaining fellow soldiers in the South Pacific. A giant sturgeon nine and a half feet long, the world record, was caught in Crockett and inhabits another glass case, a small-town version of Damien Hirst’s shark.

In one corner of the museum there is a memorial shrine to another veteran of World War II, a favorite son, Aldo Ray, the Hollywood actor. Ray grew up in Crockett and served as town sheriff before Hollywood discovered him while a film was shooting there. A signed 8″ x 10″, Ray’s Hollywood headshot, greets visitors: “The best of life to everyone looking at this photo.”

Ray, an underappreciated actor, was one of the best of the 1950s. Solidly built, with a large square head and short, sandy hair, he spoke in the tough, gravelly voice of the sugar-refinery stevedore and Navy frogman he was. He looked capable of punching a hole through a door but played light comedy opposite Judy Holliday, the toast of Broadway, in George Cukor movies like The Marrying Kind and Pat and Mike. In We’re No Angels, a Michael Curtiz comedy with a touch of ‘50s Renoir to it, Ray out-acts Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov. Aldo Ray seems like the model for a James Ellroy character, a non-stupid ex-boxer who’s seen too much and looks good in a suit. If Ray is remembered at all, he’s also remembered for his portrayals of unstrung soldiers in war movies like Antony Mann’s Men in War and two Raoul Walsh films, Battle Cry and the Hollywood Naked and the Dead, which I like better than the novel.

Ray had a difficult time in Hollywood. He was married three times by the time he was 33—there’s a photo of him with his 21-year-old British sweetheart, his third wife, in the museum. Evidently he drank heavily, a habit he must have picked up in some of those 46 bars after shifts at C&H. Before he returned to Crockett to die in a VA hospital in 1991, he became unlikely friends with Ed Wood in Hollywood, and would share bottles with the transvestite director at his apartment. The Crockett Museum is silent on that.

How often do Aldo Ray films show anywhere, even on TCM? One was showing while I was in Oakland, though, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. The film was Jacques Tourneur’s black-and-white film noir Nightfall, from 1957, screening as part of a series of adaptations of David Goodis novels. I hadn’t seen it in years, but in keeping with my vacation so far, I couldn’t go. I had a freelance deadline the same night it was playing. Nightfall co-stars a young Anne Bancroft as a model and Ray as a commercial illustrator, a melancholy couple who get mixed up in a bank robbery. There’s a still of Ray and Bancroft from Nightfall at the Crockett Museum. I remember Nightfall for its scenes in the snow in Wyoming and for the song “Red River Valley” Ray and Bancroft listen to on a transistor radio while riding a Greyhound bus.


Bolinas is about 50 miles southeast of Crockett, but this gothic hippie town that smells like compost is really a world away. Sweet-smelling Crockett was a cheery place where residents were fixing up storefronts on the town’s two main streets. Bolinas exists on a lagoon in a brown-acid time warp like a fenced-in brackish Vermont. It turns out if hippies live in isolation too long, they become the Addams Family. This tiny town, where the residents are known for tearing down the highway signs leading to it that the State of California puts up, is the post-bohemian enclave where the hippie writer Richard Brautigan killed himself in 1984. The author of Trout Fishing in America ended his life in a house in Bolinas’s creepy tall trees and his body wasn’t discovered for days.

The Brautigan death town is the anti-Crockett. In an organic grocery store in Bolinas I overheard a girl in black dreadlocks arguing with a clerk about some kind of orange coffee filters she wanted. Why was the store out of them? Outside, a well-to-do-looking older hippie dude sitting at a table kept asking passersby if they wanted a bite of his burrito.

At the town’s unmanned used bookstore there’s chart next to a lock box with a slot in it for money. The chart tells book lovers to leave whatever they think a book is worth in the box—$10 for great books down to a dollar for ones that are just okay. You pick out a book, shove in a dollar or two, then turn around to confront a sign reading something like “This store is under constant video surveillance.” “California Über Alles,” I thought, as I left with a volume of S. J. Perelman’s letters.

At the Bolinas Post Office another aging hippie was leaving a Netflix envelope in the mailbox outside. They watch DVDs here? What movies do these rich old hippies like? Since Netflix lets you look up local favorites by ZIP Code, when I got back to Oakland I punched in Bolinas’s and found out that the most popular film there was Surfwise: The Amazing True Odyssey of the Paskowitz Family, a documentary about a surfer named Doc who had nine kids and instead of allowing them to go to school, raised them in a camper on the beach. Maybe no one would believe that Surfwise is Bolinas’s local favorite, but it’s true.

Bruce Conner: Mabuhay Gardens

I forgot to mention the name of the owner of the Alameda Theatre. It’s Kyle Conner. With his complete lack of interest in the celluloid matérial of film, I doubt Kyle Conner is related to Bruce Conner, the great assembler of collage films from scraps, but maybe he is. Maybe he’s just scratching and dirtying prints for future use by crunchy bricoleurs like the filmmaker he shares a name with.

There has been a great revival of interest in Bruce Conner’s work since his death in July. A show called Crossroads: A Tribute to Bruce Conner goes up at Light Industry in Brooklyn this October. In Cambridge, Mass., at the Harvard Film Archive, a large-scale retrospective of his film work starts around the same time. While I was in Oakland, I saw a show of Conner’s punk rock photographs at the Berkeley Art Museum called Bruce Conner: Mabuhay Gardens.

Even though Conner was a little old for the crowd, starting in 1976 he began acting as house photographer at the San Francisco equivalent of CBGB’s, a former Filipino nightspot called Mabuhay Gardens scenesters turned into a punk venue. Conner’s black-and-white photographs, originally published in the zine Search and Destroy, are essential documents of punk as it happened, just as vital as the ones in Jim Jocoy’s We’re Desperate or Byron Coley’s No Wave.

In these pictures, bands like the Avengers, Crime, UXA, and Negative Trend throw themselves around on stage before crowds who still don’t look quite punk. They’re a mix of Ramones-style leather and tight jeans and feathered ‘70s hair and button-down shirts. The bands themselves are super-stylish but seem to emerge from a void (aided by the deep black of Conner’s underlit backgrounds) where they can do whatever they want because nothing’s possible, nothing’s going to happen. This is the opposite of a local scene today, where scenester musicians do very specific things and everything is possible, at least musically.

Jim Campbell: Home Movies

Another gallery at BAM featured a piece by someone named Jim Campbell called Home Movies. Campbell, according to the Berkeley Museum, is “a leading developer of high-definition television” and also an artist which, I assume, they all are. You entered a vast slightly darkened room. Opposite your entrance you take in a series of LED strips running up and down the entire wall, projecting pulses of  white light. Standing far away from them, you can just make out blurred moving images. These images were grabbed from home movies, but blown-out to the point where they aren’t recognizable. The effect was like viewing a giant shower curtain on display at a Sharper Image bankruptcy sale.

Campbell’s images were opaque and boring, an uncommunicative dot matrix of nothing. But I enjoyed his writing. The artist’s statement is one of the emptiest forms of our time, but Campbell filled it with evocative phrases. His LED installation, he says, “brings us emotionally close without sentimentality . . . to the unshareable quotient of memories.” It “flickers with the seductive familiarity of the cinema.” Did his words have anything to do with his work? Maybe they were randomly generated by it.

“Kaleidoscope Jazz Chair”

Abstraction used to be abstract. It wasn’t hidden home movies you had to stand across the street to make out. At the surprisingly pleasant and well-designed Oakland Museum, with its labyrinthine series of galleries and concrete passageways and balconies overlooking neat, wide gardens, a show called Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury returned me to the non-representational, the metaphorical instead of the literal. One of the painters in the show, Lorser Feitelson, a painter of “Magical Space Forms” worthy of the name, explains, in an artist’s statement from the sometime in the middle of the last century: “I have tried to create a wonder-world of formidable, mood-evoking form, color, space, and movement in a configuration that for me metaphorically expresses the deep disturbance of our time: ominously magnificent and terrifying events, hurtling menacingly from the unforeseeable.”

In the 1950s, Feitelson hosted a show on art that aired on NBC, probably the only serious painter who ever had a network series. Even Bob Ross was just on PBS. I would like to see Feitelson on that show, saying things like that. He sounds like he was introducing an episode of The Twilight Zone. The show was a grab bag of things from mid-century California, presented kind of eBay style: jazz album covers on one wall, TVs and paperbacks on another, chairs and vases on a shelf in the middle. These objects kept bringing me back to the movies. Over here, a photograph of Richard Neutra’s house for Josef von Sternberg in Northridge, California; over there, scenes from North by Northwest on a flat-screen TV, featuring James Mason’s house near Mount Rushmore, a movie house, not a real house like von Sternberg’s.

Movies were part of the show. In a short film from 1960 by Ray and Charles Eames called by  “Kaleidoscope Jazz Chair,” abstract shots made through a kaleidoscope cut to scenes of Eames plastic chairs animated in stop-motion. In this six-minute film, the romance of industrial design blips by, filmed in a cartoon Soviet style, in colors available only in the USA of 1960—candy reds, calm pinks, many shades of gray, mint green and deep black.

Another screen showed a four-minute-long abstract electronic animation made with an oscilloscope and an optical printer. The photographer Hy Hirsh made it in 1959 and cut it to Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” Lines the color of Eames chairs dance against a black background, creating an eerie-happy Atomic Age mood that does without cartoon characters, something I wish the literal-minded animators at Pixar, which is based near Oakland, would consider sometime.

Why is animation always about anthropomorphized spatulas and talking bugs voiced by TV stars? Pixar has created a look all of California now aspires to. It’s crisp yet gummy, sharply molded, but not like an Eames chair, which is a real object you can take a picture of, then move and take another picture of, then you can cut the two shots together, and repeat until the chair is moving on its own. To give the chair a mouth and make it talk would be childish.

The Birth of the Cool show was so good I wanted to buy the book. But, like at the Bruce Conner show, the museum was sold out. Either that’s a sign of wild success or it’s a California thing—they don’t think anybody reads.

The Earth Trembles, the iPhone rings

Outside the Oakland Museum, my friend from Brooklyn who’s visiting me in California answers a call on his iPhone. After he’s finished, he tells me he’s figured out how to copy movies from DVDs and put them on his phone. He doesn’t explain why he wants them there. Instead of asking him, I ask what movies he’s got. “La Terra Trema,” he answers. “La Terra Trema? You have La Terra Trema on your iPhone?” “Yeah,” he says. “But the subtitles are a bitch.” Then we go to a Vietnamese restaurant. There are a lot of Vietnamese restaurants in Oakland and they’re all better than the ones New York. I never found out why he brought La Terra Trema to Oakland on his iPhone. Maybe because there are earthquakes there.

The Last Mistress

Habits die hard, even when you’re out of town. After hurting my head thinking about Italian neorealism on an iPhone, the siren call of Asia Argento lured me back into a theater.

The real title of The Last Mistress translates as An Old Mistress—another case of American distributors afraid of a French film’s actual title. “Even if your heart is loftier than your morals. . .” one character starts a sentence in this inscrutable tale with an important lesson: if you’ve got a hot mistress you really love, forget about your wife no matter what. Reminiscent of the period pieces of Eric Rohmer or Benoît Jacquot, Catherine Breillat’s lukewarm film, based on a mid-19th-century novel, lacks Rohmer’s love and charity or Jacquot’s enigmatic throb. It stays in the mind for the its clammy stare and its costuming, which at one point makes Asia Argento look like she’s auditioning for a silent-movie Carmen.


Genghis Khan is hot in the West. All of a sudden everywhere you look you see him. There are non-fiction books and novels about Genghis Khan, TV shows and museum exhibits, and evidently he’s also big in Japan. People never tire of repeating that supposedly some huge percentage of people in Asia share his genes. Clearly, he’s a celebrity. What is this fascination with an illiterate conqueror from a brutal society who militarized most of the world?

Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol is one of at least two Genghis Khan films made in the last year or so, and there are more to come. Tadanobu Asano, co-star of Uniqlo billboards with Chloë Sevigny, usually appears in art or genre films by directors like Takeshi Kitano, Kiroshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Now Russians have tapped him to play Temudjin, which was the Khan’s real name.

Bodrov and Asano turn Genghis Khan into Jesus with a real sword. This is the Russian icon version, flat and suffering—The Passion of the Khan. In this bloody story, Genghis is a martyr. He struggles with his absent father to bring law to his people, and emerges as a Jewish-Japanese mystic kicking everyone out of everywhere.

Yet Mongol isn’t kosher at all. The film indulges our current passion for meat and the parts of animals we didn’t used to eat. Mongol serves up a platter of bones in soup and shanks on spits, accompanied by New Carnivore advice like “you can’t cook two ram heads in one pot.” The film is as milky as it is meaty. Genghis’s father drinks poisoned milk, the rest of the milk in the film has blood in it, the rain on the steppes looks more like milk than water. The groaning music on the soundtrack undergirds a culture that ate nothing but meat and dairy, the sound of stomachs that built an empire and conquered the world.

The Exiles

Maybe the one essential release of the summer was The Exiles. Kent MacKenzie’s shoestring black-and-white drama from 1961 exists at the same level as Shadows, Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding, and Stranger Than Paradise, which shares a poker scene with it. MacKenzie’s film, which never really had an official release back when it was made, follows a group of Native Americans through a dark night of the soul in a Los Angeles that vanished not long after the film was made. It really has more in common with Faces than with Shadows.

The Exiles spends most of its time on men drinking in bars and drunk driving. They live in a world where every song sounds like Link Wray. MacKenzie’s film exposes this world’s desperation and also traps these men there. Although it’s a fiction film, it’s also a documentary about how everything looked in Bunker Hill in the early ‘60s, the men’s work shirts, haircuts, cigarettes, and bottles of beer. Its characters have escaped what one describes as the ordered freedom of life on the reservation for the completely disordered freedom of bad jobs, tiny apartments, and cheap booze.

The actors in the film are non-professionals from the Native American community in Los Angeles at the time. They use their own names for the parts they play—Homer, Mary, Tommy, Cliff, Rico, Yvonne. Playing versions of themselves, the men are tough and unapologetic, the women tender and sad. One of the women abandons the men at a gas station on Sunset Boulevard, just gets out of the car and leaves the film behind. Another sits by herself through intermission at a double feature showing of Sirk’s Imitation of Life. The “Intermission Time” song she listens to silently and alone exposes the all tawdriness and inadequacy of entertainment.


Pineapple Express

Pineapple Express sets out to prove that in a country where pot is illegal, daily life will be humiliating and violent. This theme runs through current American cinema like stems in a fifty. The movie takes place in a nondescript county somewhere in Generic America that’s as crappy as any locale in a 1970s John Waters film. In this milieu, people’s only bond is their mutual desire to get high. Every junk-stuffed, washed-out frame traps the film’s wounded losers into deadly situations they can escape only because the movie is a comedy. Tim Orr’s cinematography, the ugliest since Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, deserves an Oscar for being so bold and unremitting in sticking to what it set out to do.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

If you grew up reading Archie Comics you learned that the ultimate choice Archie has to make in life is not what to do for a living, not where to live, not where to get health insurance. Archie’s ultimate choice is: Betty or Veronica? In real life, Betty and Veronica have their own choices to make. It’s to Woody Allen’s credit that he shows this situation from the perspectives of women, close to the way Catherine Breillat showed it in The Last Mistress and close to the way Ingmar Bergman does it—Vicky Cristina Barcelona is like one of the Bergman summer films Woody Allen likes so much.

But getting back to the Archies, here Betty is Scarlett Johansson’s Cristina, Veronica is Rebecca Hall’s Vicky, except sometimes she’s Penelope Cruz’s Maria Elena. I guess Barcelona is Riverdale. Except Bardem is more like Boris Karloff than he is like Archie Andrews.

When Johansson’s amorphous blonde turns to photography in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the film at first appears to be letting her off the hook. She doesn’t know what she wants in life but at least she’s an artist. Yet her photos are only kind of good, and I think Allen made them that way on purpose. Cristina faces the problem of having average talent, which is a much more baffling problem for people than being talented or untalented.

Rebecca Hall is the daughter of Peter Hall, the British stage director who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her portrayal of an American—specifically a Woody Allen American, which is not quite the same thing—is better than an American would have done. Why is that that the children of acting royalty in England are Rebecca Hall and in America they’re Jake Busey?

Allen shows a subtle contempt for Cristina’s go-getter New York fiancé, who’s overly proud of how normal he is. When he starts to tell a joke in one scene, Allen cuts out the sound so we don’t hear his punchline. At one point the film gets too comfortable with itself. Then Allen brings in the fearsome Maria Elena, who we’ve been hearing about like she’s Harry Lime. Offended by Cristina’s American version of worldliness, which involves studying a language she’ll never use, Maria Elena snaps “say something in Chinese!” at her, the most aggressive line of the summer. Allen doesn’t leave it at that. Maria Elena goes on to insult the very idea of Chinese, expressing incredulity that anyone, including Chinese people, would want to speak it at all. Penelope Cruz makes this point beautifully, that a real artist doesn’t care what she says.

Something to Talk About

Godard says the cinema is valuable because it gives us something to talk about. So it makes sense there’s a movie called Something to Talk About. What doesn’t make sense is that I had to see it on an airplane. On JetBlue, every seat has a TV embedded in the back of the seat in front of you. I don’t like to watch TV on airplanes so I usually turn it off. Sometimes I check out the flight path channel, which shows the plane over a map and tells your altitude.

Returning from Oakland, the person sitting across the aisle and ahead of me to my right was watching Something to Talk About on one of the JetBlue channels. Sometimes when I’m in a bar and a TV’s on, I can’t take my eyes off it, regardless of what’s showing or who I’m with. That’s what happened, but I couldn’t sit facing away like you can in a bar. Whenever I put my nose in a magazine, Something to Talk About drew it out. I’d try to concentrate on what I was reading and this useless movie from the mid-‘90s with Julia Roberts and Dennis Quaid would catch my eye and I’d start watching it again. Julia Roberts has this power, like a road accident.

I couldn’t even hear the sound. The movie looks like it’s about people who own horses. Gena Rowlands and Robert Duvall are in it, which helped reel me in, and Kyra Sedgwick flails around in it for reasons I couldn’t understand. I think she was mad she was in Something to Talk About and was trying to wave me away.

The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway

People like to quote The Wizard of Oz: there’s no place like home. I prefer to get my homilies from somebody a little more disabused than Dorothy Gale, in this case the jazz pianist Andrew Hill: “There is no refuge. There is no place to hide. No matter where you look, you’re still the one who’s looking.” I was still looking at the world through a screen, right now a window in a car-service car on the BQE taking me home to South Brooklyn from JFK. I love driving on the BQE watching the dirty buildings go by. I know I’m home when I’m on it, even though I live so close to it the noise and fumes are probably killing me. I see the YOUTH MOOSE graffiti on that building in Williamsburg and know in a few minutes I’ll be unlocking my door.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author