Days and Nights in the Whatever

Well, I didn’t leave town and—like a good fucking boy—I managed to stay sober the whole weekend, so that must mean I threw a lot of money away on a goddam video game player I didn’t really want and definitely don’t need. What the hell was I thinking? At least it got me through Saturday, when my next door neighbor started playing a 20-minute loop of some guy yakking for a while, followed by a spare but loud bass guitar and finally a monotonous techno drumbeat that came throbbing through the wall, beginning at 8 a.m. and running with nary a break until 9 p.m.—note the difference in meridians there—at which point he finally put on some regular music, but not without first cranking up the volume and maintaining this new level until two in the morning. I was like, fine, fuck, whatever. It was Gay Pride Weekend, and since anyone needing to celebrate his fabulous Otherness at such a pitch should be allowed to knock himself out once a year, I just cranked up my headphones and kept on killing off outlaw gangs in Red Dead Redemption. But then on Sunday morning—that holiest, most heterosexual of mornings—I was just picking the croissant crumbs out of my teeth at 9 a.m. when that monotonous thud set my wall to shivering again.

See, I’ve got an anger management problem that keeps me from fully embracing life. I believe in “Live and let live” and all that other bonny crap, but I require a certain amount of peace and quiet to keep the lid clamped down on my tortured fucking soul, plus I’ve got a lot of resentment issues which make it hard for me to express my needs without going off in people’s faces. So I was sitting here doing deep-breathing exercises and planning out just how I was going to approach this maniac, and what sort of tone I’d adopt to achieve the most productive, beneficial outcome for both of us and blah-blah-blah, when I see Wolfman Jack himself standing out on his back deck. Only he’s not Dan Savage or a pompous 20-something shitbird in a faux-hawk or porkpie hat, but just a gangly, uncertain 17 year old kid from Hong Kong, here to visit old Mr. Lee next door, and who hustles back indoors to turn the music down the second I bring the subject up. Which was swell, as it left me plenty of time to concentrate on the goddam video game and thereby waste a beautiful sunny Sunday. Really, I’d have been better off drunk in Death Valley.

At least I saw some good movies the last few days. Days and Nights in the Forest is something special, even for Satyajit Ray. It’s the Ray movie whose rhythms and complications seemed most familiar to me as a Western viewer, even if its setup resembles movies as diverse as I Vitelloni, The Big Chill, and the early (and best) part of Deliverance, where the cocksure city-slickers entertain themselves by mocking the country rubes. In Days and Nights four friends from Calcutta—all young, male and well-to-do—spend a few days in a remote bungalow, a break which brings out their various attitudes toward authority, toward women, toward working and art and alcohol and sex, each of them colored by their relative affluence and the lingering aftereffects of the British Raj. Days and Nights sustains one of the freest atmospheres in a movie this side of California Split: in no order, and according to no plan, the men nap, bathe, hit a backwater bar, take walks, read, play games, and bicker, bicker, bicker. (It nails the tensions that can settle in between friends who are sharing close quarters.) Eventually they befriend two young women, one of whom (the awesomely talented, supremely beautiful Sharmila Tagore) is given to Western customs; by comparison, her sister-in-law, a plain-faced young widow who’s playing badminton in a sari when we meet her, comes across like a drip. But Ray does what Laurence Cantet did with the crab-like union leader in Human Resources, and encourages our prejudices against a character just so he can later knock them down. By the end of Days and Nights in the Forest—and what a great title that is—I felt more for the sister-in-law than anyone else in the film.

After trashing Scorsese the other day, I was a bit abashed when I gave The Departed a second chance and realized how much I like it, with a lot of the things I admired most coming from William Monahan’s fresh-mouthed, death-obsessed screenplay. Along with the scripts for Chinatown and Midnight Run, it’s a model for a certain type of genre picture; the first 20 minutes in particular smoothly ping-pong around, unscrambling the complicated backstory of its three main characters with a figure-skater’s elegance. Overall Monahan crafted so many intensely focused scenes with fresh, pungent conviction that one only wishes certain other filmmakers, like the guy responsible for that pointlessly blabby, rough-draft mess called Inglourious Basterds, could catch a clue from it.

Elsewhere…

John Simon, whom you may have noticed is hardly ever discussed nowadays, regularly disgraced himself a generation ago by pouncing on the personal traits and physical features of actresses he happened not to like, always under the guise of judging their “fitness” for their roles. As a critical practice it would’ve seemed only inane and slightly creepy had Simon not invested his takedowns with such acidic gusto: he interpreted his subjects’ homeliness as such a slap at his lofty standards that he’d take a verbal scalpel to their faces, painting the unsightly hags with their unmitigated gall as unfit not just for the silver screen but human society in general. (A typical “insight”: “Sandy Dennis has balanced her postnasal condition with something like prefrontal lobotomy, so that when she is not a walking catarrh she is a blithering imbecile.”) Simon coolly rationalized that people presumptuous enough to fill a forty-foot screen with their faces ought to handle the flak along with the laurels, and while that’s true, it doesn’t explain the sadistic relish he brought to his work half as well as the idea that he was a moral homunculus who got off on writing demeaning shit about women.

This is all by way of saying that my biggest surprise this weekend came when I found myself enamored with a Renée Zellweger romcom. Renée and me, we don’t really get along, and I hate to admit how much of it has to do with her face. I simply can’t look at her without thinking about castor oil, nor does it help that in her movies she’s merely pretending to act, which is something different than actually acting. Vera Farmiga doesn’t ring my bell either but she’s clearly loaded with talent, and though it may mystify her high-school classmates to see her making out with Matt Damon or George Clooney, it never feels like it came to pass only because mysterious forces were at work deep within the earth’s core.

Peyton Reed’s Down with Love hasn’t made me a Zellweger fan—nothing will ever accomplish that—but if I saw her choking on a chicken bone today I’d probably give her the Heimlich Maneuver. An incredibly knowing pastiche of those sexless sex comedies from the early ’60s, Down with Love isn’t close to being as consistently funny as Airplane! or This Is Spinal Tap, but it’s funny enough and it’s the richer work—a genuine pomo study of gender politics. (It puts Far From Heaven out to pasture altogether.) Reed, the writers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake (their only other major credit is the Legally Blonde sequel), and the production team studied the hell out of those old Doris Day-Cary Grant-Rock Hudson monstrosities, then stitched together a Frankenstein of their own from a million old tropes and gags.

Set in the Manhattan of 1962, the movie follows the sexual and romantic exploits of Zellweger, the author of a bestselling proto-feminist manifesto, and Ewan MacGregor, a chauvinistic magazine publisher who’s caught somewhere between Hefner and Bond. All of the old clichés are here, including MacGregor’s plan to bed Zellweger by impersonating a chaste, Southern, glasses-wearing astronaut (“Major Zip Martin”), a boardroom stuffed with old fogies who all go by their initials, a brassy gal-pal and confidant for Zellweger (Sarah Paulson) and a Tony Randall-like sidekick for MacGregor (a perfect David Hyde Pierce), and—the cherry on top—the real Tony Randall, in a bit part. The old movies’ style has been inflated, particularly in the women’s eye-scorching clothes, to make it play not as the exact replica of a Doris Day comedy, but as something someone with a slight fever might dream about one. (The men’s clothes are more sedate, but even there Down with Love captures something essential, especially in the late-night conversation between MacGregor, clad in his bathrobe, and Pierce, who’s just run in from the rain in a businessman’s trenchcoat.) Even the old-school look is sent up: Zellweger’s and MacGregor’s her and his penthouse apartments both have views of a spectacular but conspicuously artificial New York skyline, and at one point they share a phone call which, through the split-screen technique once favored for such situations, looks like they’re providing each other with oral sex throughout the conversation. The one cliché almost everyone would nominate as most typical of the genre—the climactic race to the airport—is the only one that never appears. Instead Down with Love has its own ending, one that celebrates the ascension of feminism while quietly implying that nobody—and women least of all—ever wanted its goals to come to pass.

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