Monday, May 27, 2013

On Being, and Being John Malkovich

Catherine Keener rolls one in Being John Malkovich
I just saw Being John Malkovich (on Netflix) for the third or fourth time, and I must say, I like it more each time. It's got everything: the most outrageous plot ever, the most comedic settings, the wildest acting....all with metaphysical questions about who's pulling the strings. "I've begun to imagine it as a very expensive suit I enjoy wearing," one soul says of his borrowed body.

A couple of references to pot are in the film: Lottie (Cameron Diaz) convinces her husband Craig (John Cusak) to invite the object of both their desires, Maxine (Catherine Keener) to dinner. "It will be fine, we'll smoke a joint," she counters when Craig mounts an excuse. After dinner, Keener rolls a joint for her admirers.

But it's Charlie Sheen, playing himself as the friend Malkovich goes to when he's feeling controlled by an outside force, who gets to the heart of the matter. "Were you stoned?" is the first thing Charlie asks, because as he well knows, expanding one's consciousness is an interesting and often instructive thing to do, though it can leave you a little confused. When Malkovich replies in the affirmative, Sheen says, "You were stoned, end of story." 

Keener was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her role in the film, as was writer Charlie Kaufman (he took the BAFTA). Malkovich got an American Comedy Award, and deserved it. Still, I think my favorite moment is when it's revealed why the chimp has post-traumatic stress.

Kaufman's encore Adaptation is also a writing and acting wonder: Nicolas Cage plays both Kaufman and his brainless but strangely successful twin/alter ego. Cage is attempting to write an adaptation of The Orchid Thief for the screen and...I won't reveal the plot except to say when it goes sensational, drugs are involved and Meryl Streep is a wonder.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Rights of Passage: Miley Cyrus, Amanda Bynes and Marijuana


Miley Cyrus's new look in V Magazine  
Filmed in 2010 but not released until 2012, LOL starring Miley Cyrus has an rather interesting take on marijuana—until it gets preachy. And like her recent photo in "V" magazine (left), Cyrus doesn't quite let her pants down in the film (now viewable on Netflix).

In one scene from LOL, two teens and four grown ups get together for a dinner party. The teens (Cyrus as Lola and Jean-Luc Bilodeau as Jeremy) make an excuse to go to his room instead of eating with the old folks. "We aren't interested in your senior conversations," Lola says. A bit miffed, one of the adults responds, "We aren't interested in your teenage conversations." Notice that the two groups aren't communicating.

After the kids leave, the Dad—whose nod to hippiedom is a beard and a friendship bracelet—lights a joint and passes it to his three female companions, starting with Demi Moore. Moore's character emphatically states that her daughter doesn't smoke, and that she has never smoked in front of her. As for Jeremy, his mother says, "Don't worry, Jeremy hates drugs." Cut to: Jeremy in his room with Lola, exhaling a bong full. He wears a chunky hemp necklace, but Miley's character neither wears nor smokes hemp.

Demi Moore accepts and tokes a joint in LOL
Knowing that the ONDCP has had input into network TV shows, one can only imagine what Hays Code-style forces hatched this LOL subplot: Moore meets a hot narcotics officer, who gives an anti-pot talk at Lola's school. Flashed on the screen are pictures of brains supposedly representing the effects of long-term marijuana use, from a bogus organization called Organization for a Drug-Free World. Another slide claims that those who are heavy users of cannabis at age 18 are 600 times more likely to develop schizophrenia(!) After the talk, Moore's hypocritical, pot-puffing mom admonishes her daughter to take heed of the scaremongering, and the cop asks (or rather, demands) that Moore have a drink with him, in the middle of the day.

A possible sly commentary on the brain slides, coupled with the old PDFA "fried egg" ads, is contained in the amusing sequence showing the kids being served strange foods by French families on a field trip. "It's a pity, she hasn't even eaten her brain," one French mother says. Later, the parents' pot-smoking dinner party scene is reprised, with the cop sitting at the table as the joint is passed. "I only use it for my sciatica," the Dad lies, as though that makes him virtuous.

Slide from an anti-drug assembly in LOL
LOL saw limited release and grossed only $10 million worldwide, with a budget of $11 million. Wanna bet it would have made more money had Cyrus toked herself in the film, and it was released the year it was made, when she was in the news for smoking "salvia"? This may be the most scandalous interference in a career over marijuana since Spiro Agnew personally called radio stations and asked them not to play Brewer and Shipley's song "One Toke Over the Line."

Being a child star entering young adulthood is a tough gig. Just watch Inside Daisy Clover or observe the latest antics of Amanda Bynes, who allegedly threw a bong out of her New York apartment building window after someone called the cops on her for smoking a joint in the lobby (she denies the charge).

Parents these days can be as stupid as kids: A 9/11 call was placed from Moore's home in January 2012 after she went out partying with her daughter and smoked "Spice," a foolish thing to do, especially in combination with Adderall and Red Bull, as she reportedly did. The latest news is that she's back to yoga and has another young boyfriend.

Are we ever going to grow up about pot? Or will parents just continue to pretend they never smoked it, and let their children learn the worst possible behaviors around it from their peers, who know that the government is feeding them bullshit, but aren't always able to find the way to a higher truth on their own?


UPDATE 6/19/13: Cyrus says she's happy to live in California, "a place where you can be what you want to be" and calls alcohol "way more dangerous than marijuana" in an upcoming edition of Rolling Stone. A forthcoming edition of Marijuana is SAFER: So Why Are We Driving People To Drink? ought to spark more of a debate.





Monday, May 13, 2013

The Greater Gatsby

Carey Mulligan as Daisy in The Great Gatsby
Rather than listen to the critics who think they know what The Great Gatsby is supposed to be about, I saw for myself Baz Luhrman's interpretation and I must say: I was blown away. The opening sequences, and much else, were breathtaking in their use of 3D technology, and the viewer is immediately transported into Fitzgerald's New York of the 1920s (even though, yes, it was filmed in Australia).

Not only is the new adaptation true to the book, it breathes new life into the story and relates it squarely to the excesses of today. Bryan Ferry's version of Roxy Music's "Love is the Drug" with 20's style horns smooths the transition to a modern soundtrack that actually works (and features Fergie and Luna del Rey).

I can't help comparing this Gatsby to the duller-than-dirt 1970s version with Robert Redford sleepwalking through the title role. The golden girl Daisy, released from a tepid Mia Farrow portrayal, is here played with spark and intelligence by a luminous Carey Mulligan. I didn't think I could like her more than I did Alison Pill, who played Zelda (Daisy's inspiration) in Midnight in Paris, but Mulligan was everything she should be, and more. DiCaprio didn't move me much, he's just pathetic–like Redford's portrayal. He's best in scenes when masterfully provoked by Joel Edgerton as Daisy's husband Tom.

Isla Fisher as Myrtle.
Myrtle the Temptress also benefits from better casting: instead of the always-annoying Karen Black, we're treated to Isla Fisher, who played Mary Jane in the Scooby Doo movie. The scene orchestrated by Myrtle wherein Nick learns to party makes splendid use of Fitzgerald's words describing mind alteration:

I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

This sounds to me a lot more like getting high than being drunk. In fact, it rather sounds like Jack London's description of smoking hashish.

Remember, Gatsby is set in the 20s, when pot was still legal and sold in pharmacies, as cigarettes or tinctures. A musician in Lehrman's Gatsby is unmistakably modeled on Cab Calloway, who's "Are You Hip to the Jive?" was the "Are You Experienced?" of his day. (Calloway recorded "Minnie the Moocher" and "Reefer Man.")

Everyone from Stephen Colbert to the BBC World Service book club missed the core of the novel: Gatsby is an American hero because he makes his money by illegal means, which necessarily involves thuggery. When this was mentioned on the BBC, it merely drew the usual mock astonishment and chuckles from the esteemed panel, which included Jay McInerney.

Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim
So I guess I'll have to be the one to tell you the news: The Great Gatsby is the first modern novel about a drug dealer.

To hammer home the point, one of Gatsby's associates, Meyer Wolfsfheim, is modeled on Arnold Rothstein, the first international drug smuggler and gambler (who famously fixed the 1919 World Series).

Gatsby is said to own a chain of drug stores at which it's said that anything, including bootleg liquor, can be bought. He speaks of "a little business on the side ... a rather confidential sort of thing" and offers the narrator Nick a piece of the action in exchange for setting up a meeting with Daisy.

After Gatsby sends a servant to mow Nick's lawn in anticipation of the meeting, Nick tells him, “The grass is fine.”

“What grass?” asks Gatsby. “Oh, the grass in the yard.”

Where else would grass be?

Grass is again strangely mentioned in Fitzgerald's last novel, The Last Tycoon. In it, movie producer Monroe Stahr takes love interest Kathleen to his house, where he has had a strip of grass brought in from the prop department. Kathleen laughs and asks, “Isn’t that real grass?” Stahr replies, “Oh yes—it’s grass.”

When Stahr goes to Kathleen’s door, she says, “I’m sorry I can’t ask you in. Shall I get my reefer and sit outside?” (A reefer is also the name of a sailor’s coat.) Stahr first sees Kathleen floating on the head of Siva, when a flood dislodges it from a movie set. To this day, worshippers in India drink bhang (a drink made with cannabis) to celebrate Siva’s marriage to the goddess Parvati.

Now that Lurhman has rescued Gatsby from obscurity, it's time for a brilliant remake of The Last Tycoon (also made in the 70s, and also flat, despite Robert DeNiro as Stahr).

Fitzgerald was named for his relative Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to "The Star Spangled Banner," and his family was considered keepers of American virtue.

The protagonist of his novel The Beautiful and Damned has this exchange with a friend:

"Did they ban cigarettes? I see the hand of my holy grandfather." 
"He's a reformer or something, isn't he?" 
"I blush for him."

Anthony Patch, who stands in for Fitzgerald in the story, is the grandson of Adam J. Patch, a reformer in the mold of Anthony Comstock (for whom Patch is named). In 1873 Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public. [Wikipedia] Patch speaks disdainfully of the "shocked and alarmful eyes" of "chroniclers of the mad pace of America."

Why does no one ask the obvious question: where does the name "Gatsby" come from? His real name is "Gatz" which is the next down the alphabet from "Fitz" in "Fitzgerald." Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald lost his desired debutante, when Zelda broke their engagement to be married. In reality or fantasy, did Scott win Zelda back by getting rich dealing in grass? Was he critical of reformers because he was himself a rebel? Can you live outside the law and still be a hero? Are moralists missing something in life? (Oh yes, and why is Gatsby's first name "Jay?" Why was the light he sought green in color?)

A final note: the theatre where I'd hoped to see Gatsby in 3D, the Grand Lake in Oakland, isn't showing it in 3D, but rather had Iron Man 3 with Robert Downey Jr in 3D. Downey's now a good little Hollywood boy playing in nice, violent films with big box office and (snore) sequel potential. I'd much rather have seen him as Gatsby.