Monthly Archives: March 2014

Streaming Choices: Fritz Lang Interviewed by William Friedkin (1974)

In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Rating: Four stars (out of five)

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist would have looked like an entirely different film without Fritz Lang’s influence.  The shadows in the bedroom, the ominous staircase, the classic poster image with the bright light cascading down on the silhouetted priest, and plenty other visual flourishes owe much (everything?) to Lang classics like MetropolisM, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.  Interviewing Lang a year after his own hit horror classic hit theaters, Friedkin tries to pick his hero’s brain about the meanings, influences, and craft of his greatest works.

But Lang has different ideas.  The shop talk moments — intriguing in their own right, although often undercut by Friedkin’s jittery zooms, jostling camera, and cuts implemented like a bored child — give way to something more powerful and vital.

After an extended discussion of how “you cannot live in a country which has lost a war without being influenced,” Lang tells the story of how he left Nazi Germany in 1933.

While preparing for The Testament of Dr. Mabuse’s release, Lang was informed by “the yellow shirts” they would confiscate his film because of his blatant critiques of Nazism in it.  In the film, the titular Dr. Mabuse spews messages of how his crime syndicate will reign for 1000 years, recreating, almost word-for-word, Hitler’s own predictions for his Third Reich.  Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels “invited” (ordered) Lang for a meeting, at which Lang figured he would have to explain himself for the allegory.

The way Lang tells the story is astounding in its immediacy.  You can see that he feels he’s experiencing it again, his expression one of relived fear and disgust.  He describes in absolute detail the dress code he was required to wear to the meeting, the way the concrete looked in the Propaganda Ministry, and the way sound echoed off the walls.  He’s there, reporting to us what he sees.  Friedkin’s irritating camera and editing finally get out of the story’s way as he holds in a tight over-the-shoulder as Lang deadpans, “It was disagreeable.”

The tale features rising and falling action and story beats that feel like his movies and less like an extemporaneous retelling of a moment in a man’s life.  The suspense he sews in us while Goebbels sits with him to discuss his summons is up there with the opening of M.

And just like every good storyteller, Lang hits us with a surprise that simultaneously releases tension by answering in the negative the initial question (would he be jailed, or worse, for criticizing the regime?) with one that creates a grander, terrifying one: Goebbels offers Lang the job to be the German filmmaker of the Third Reich.  He tells of the sweat that soaked his body and the daydreams of withdrawing his savings and leaving immediately.  Lang informs Goebbels that he has Jewish blood, something which Goebbels brushes away with a flippant response that shows the pick-and-choose ideological bankruptcy of Nazism: “Mr. Lang, we decide who is an Aryan.”

Lang is remarkable for not even considering the deal with the devil such a high perch would give him.  He just wanted out.  He doesn’t pat himself on the back for his morals; they are simply there.  He left the next day on a train out of the country on his way to becoming one of the finest film noir directors of the ensuing decades.

You can watch Fritz Lang Interviewed by William Friedkin on YouTube.  Embedded below is the video for the first part.


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Chicago Cubs Coping Mechanisms, 2014 Edition

Every significant indicator — the number two farm system in baseball, a lucrative new television contract on the way after this season, expected positive regression for team cornerstones Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, the financial health of the organization will dovetail with the emerging competitive window — points to excitement on the horizon for the Chicago Cubs.  Unfortunately, that excitement does not matter for the 2014 squad.  They’re a ramshackle team, with middling starting pitching headlined by the beautifully locked — and overwhelmingly likely soon-to-be former Cub — Jeff Samardzija, a possibly emergent bullpen, and a mix-and-match offense populated with players who would be bench guys or minor league depth on 26 or 27 other teams.  Things don’t look good.  Some luck could go their way, but it would be foolish to expect the team to wildly improve on their projected 73-89 record. Instead, expect another midsummer “Everything must go!” sale.

Where does this leave Cubs fans?  The season starts tomorrow, and pessimism is never fun with half a calendar year of losing ahead.  We have little of substance on the field to root for, so we often have to look around the edges for those tangential things that make the Cubs and their surroundings unique.  Here are some interesting storylines to help cope with the 2014 Cubs season.

1.  Political intrigue!

Palms love to be greased everywhere, but in Chicago, there’s a brighter spotlight on the back room dealings.  The tradition of “What’s in it for me?” in the Windy City goes back a century or more, with charges of voting early and often, laissez-faire approaches to organized crime, sped-up building permit processes for buddies (always buddies, never friends, pals, mates), nepotistic political dynasties, and plenty of other things I never overheard my grouchy city employee father rail against after bad days (every day) at work.  It’s all quite fascinating from a sociological, storytelling standpoint, if difficult to stomach if you care about things like “doing what’s right” and “efficient government” — who needs ’em when there’s money to be made? The West Wing, it is not.  And so, in keeping with convention, making significant and necessary changes to one of the city’s oldest institutions, Wrigley Field, has been a torturous process of trying to cut laughably thick red tape armed only with nail clippers.

What would normally be a simple, straightforward story of a business improving its facilities with its own money — after, of course, trying to secure public tax dollars for the job — has become a political epic of grandstanding, delayed promises, and histrionic City Hall meetings, all because the Cubs want to maximize their profits through renovating their literally crumbling private business and erect revenue-generating advertising around the ballpark, like a jumbotron in left field.

In the way stand the rooftop owners across Waveland and Sheffield Avenues who have profited from the Cubs’ product for half a century or more.  Yes, they are currently operating under a shared-revenue deal inked a decade ago before a Cubs ownership change, but the arguments they’re making are silly and fun to watch.  Essentially, the rooftops have parroted themselves as everyday denizens of Lakeview (the neighborhood surround Wrigley) with only a cultural interest in preserving tradition and not upsetting the way of things, rather than a financial interest gained from unobstructed views of something they don’t own.  In their corner is 44th ward alderman, Tom Tunney, whose “up your butts” outrage in the name of “the people” (a few rooftop business owners) is simply delicious.

It’s pretty obvious which side of the argument I fall on, but this is interesting for everyone for the spectacle of bickering.  Like I wrote above, you have to take a sociological, storytelling view of things to appreciate their absurdity in full.  And 2014 looks to be the year when everything finally gets sorted, with the renovation tentatively, finally, scheduled to begin once the season ends.

2. Wrigley Field’s 100th Anniversary Throwback Jerseys

Wrigley turns 100 years old in 2014, and the Cubs have some fun stuff in store.  I’m most excited for the 10 different throwback uniforms, each representing a decade of the ballpark’s history, the team will wear throughout the year.  Visual variety is something the team has lacked in recent years, particularly since they reduced the number of times they don their blue alternates once preferred by pitcher Carlos Zambrano.  The day’s uniforms are generally chosen by the day’s starter, and given ballplayers’ typical insistence on keeping things simple and overly superstitious thinking, it makes sense that they wouldn’t switch things up with any regularity.  Still, from a fan’s perspective, that gets dull.

Therefore, these corporately mandated jersey changes for each homestand will be great fun to watch.  As you can expect, they aren’t all winners.  The 1953 outfit is bland and too white, and the 1994 blues look like a high school team’s practice uniforms.  The 1914 Chicago Federals jerseys, to be worn against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 23, are standouts.  They look like they’ve jumped from John Sayles’s Eight Men Out to the modern day.

My favorites, though, are the 1978 road uniforms.  The Cubs will wear them against the Cardinals on July 27, at which point the baby bears will likely already be playing spoiler.  I’ll do my best to get to this game to see my team try to block their biggest rivals from steamrolling their way to the top of the National League, while wearing their glorious powder blue duds.

3. The Gingerman Tavern

Located a couple blocks north of Wrigley on Clark St., the Gingerman Tavern might be my favorite bar for several reasons.  The last few times I went been there, they played The Clash’s debut album as they showed Animal Planet’s Too Cute on every TV in the bar, and they serve Jeppson’s Malort, Chicago’s grossest liquor and greatest thing to serve to out-of-towner friends.  Plus, personal hero, Lawrence Arms bassist/vocalist, and Bad Sandwich Chronicles blogger Brendan Kelly is known to haunt (and tend) the bar from time to time.  It’s a good place to catch a table with friends, and buy them stomach-turning shots.

4. Glimpses of “The Future”

The Cubs’ number two-ranked farm system will likely graduate a few of its top prospects this year, including 21-year-old shortstop Javier Baez, whom Baseball Prospectus’s Jason Parks says may have “the best bat speed [he’s] ever seen,” and certainly the best he’s seen at the minor league level.  Baez’s legend has grown to Greek myth levels this spring training, with his hyperventilation-inducing power and banning from certain backfields because he broke car windows with home run balls.  He will start the year at AAA Iowa in order to work on his defense — he could need to switch to second or third base because of Starlin Castro’s place as the projected-to-rebound incumbent shortstop — and plate approach.  Besides, if he were to open the season with the big team, procedural rules would cost the Cubs an entire year of contract cost control over him.  It’s best to keep the prospect with the “best ceiling in the minors” for a year of his assumed prime than bring him up two months early in a lost season in which he will struggle against big league pitchers before making adjustments.  Barring injury or ineffectiveness, he’ll be at Wrigley sometime in the summer.

2013 first round pick, third baseman Kris Bryant, also looks primed to make a case for a big league call-up by the end of the year.  He tore up the notoriously pitching rich Florida State League after signing last summer, and will be in AA Tennessee, where most expect him to continue developing his tremendous power.  Most expect him to be a right fielder when all is said and done, and circumstances at the big league level could force that move as soon as late summer.

Those circumstances come in the shape of Mike Olt, who just made the team out of spring training after a 2013 season that saw him lose his big time prospect labeling because of a tear duct issue that caused him to not be able to see the ball.  His doctors found a way to treat the issue, and he has looked like the player who was the Texas Rangers’ top prospect two years ago.  He probably will not hit for much average, but his patience, plus-defense at third base, and 25-30 homer power make him a huge asset to an offensively challenged team if he can make the necessary adjustments.  After his eye issues last year that cast into doubt his ability to ever play the game again, it’s nice to see him make the team with a chance to stick around as an important piece of the contending Cubs teams most expect in the next few years.

5. #Hugwatch

The Cubs will again be sellers at the 2014 trade deadline.  This means that anyone on the wrong side of 30, anyone playing well, and anyone unwilling to sign a longterm deal in order to stick around during the upcoming contention will be shipped out for prospects.  Candidates include ostensible ace Samardzija, Gold Glove (and miserably hitting) second baseman Darwin Barney, and recently signed starter Jason Hammel.

These guys are not inanimate objects.  They have feelings.  They build relationships.  Sometimes, relationships have to end via trade.  Therefore, hugs happen.  It’s something of a baseball tradition whenever someone gets traded in the middle of a game that the camera operators scan the dugout to catch every goodbye hug between now former teammates and coaches.  In recent seasons on Twitter, #Hugwatch has popped up whenever such moments occur.  It’s a nice, communal way to say so long to favorite players, laugh at their weird personal handshakes with their friends, and celebrate a guy’s impending move to a chance at a World Series ring.

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Revisiting the Recent: Black Swan (2010)

Sometimes things — ideas, experiences, nouns in general — require more than a knee jerk reaction.  In Revisiting the Recent, I look at pop culture from the not-so-distant past to see how my opinions have grown or changed.

Rating: Five stars (out of five)

This movie adheres to the idea that the most damaged people make the greatest art, usually through force of will alone. Nina (Natalie Portman) alternately rejects and embraces her worst impulses again and again, figuratively (literally?) killing herself for perfection she cannot achieve.  It’s a theme that grow more with the passage of time, and Black Swan reveals itself a perfect vessel to deliver it.  The more life we experience, the more failure we experience.  We want to give up — our jobs, our relationships, our art — but the briefest of hopeful moments reminds us to keep going, then we hit worse snags than before.  It’s both a hopeful message (“If we just try hard enough, we’ll get there eventually.”) and a horrifying prospect (“What if we never get there?”).  If we don’t keep our heads on straight and succumb to our demons, like Nina does here, that hope recedes entirely.

The process of Nina cracking up is done in the tautest way, not wasting a moment. It runs 108 minutes, but it feels far shorter.  The script, from Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin, trims all unnecessary fat; there are no wrenching speeches.  We know Nina’s mother, played by Barbara Hershey, gave up her own ballet career, but this information is dropped organically, through tense comments between mother and daughter.  When Nina snaps, “You were 28,” it’s a devastating takedown, more than just implying — but without being completely overt at the same time — her meddling mother was never going to reach the heights Nina finds herself immersed in, perhaps not entirely because of her own talent.  Editor Andrew Weisblum shapes these moments just right, never stepping on the script or performances, and yet he scoots the narrative along at a snappier pace than typical awards season fair, which this film was plopped in the heart of.

Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, this weekend’s Noah) implements CGI minimally, which lands harder than a blockbuster’s computerized saturation could.  The reason this works is because the handheld immediacy of the camerawork gives us the false sense that this world is real.  The camera swoops around these intense dance sequences, the ballerinas soaked in sweat, their breath heaving, their joints straining from constant punishment, then the reality drops out in almost cruel fashion to shatter our hold on the film’s reality.  Nina bursts magnificent black feathers, her eyes turn crimson, her legs reverse grotesquely at the knees, and she floats around the stage as sexual menace.  And just as quickly, she reverts to the familiar figure of Natalie Portman.  Aronofsky knows to keep the audience unsure of Nina’s mental health and therefore her reliability as a narrator.

Even more impressive is the almost total lack of jump scares Aronofsky uses to frighten the audience. It’s a terrifying picture, but this results from building suspense in which we know Nina’s losing it.  Seeing her react to her oncoming insanity is scarier than any monster popping up behind her.  Portman creates this stressed wreck of a girl, kept from adulthood by her overbearing mother, her initial lowly place in the dance company, and what is likely an inherent emotional instability.  But she gets invited into this world of attention, backhanded affirmation, and the scary specter of sex, and she can’t keep all the plates spinning.  Growing up is a frightening thing and we don’t all handle it well.  Nina’s on the extreme side of this, and she offers us a glimpse of the worst we can get when we don’t deal with our hangups.

These elements create an environment to deepen the film’s appeal, four years later.  The shallower fears one experiences during first viewing– the visual grotesqueries of Nina’s shattered psyche, her mother’s jarring appearance during Nina’s “homework assignment” — are stretched during rewatches into a mounting dread of inevitability.  Nina’s “What if I never get there?” insecurity would be heartbreaking if it weren’t plumbing the depths of horror.  To her, and Aronofsky, failing at one’s chosen art form is the worst, most evil thing that could happen, and Black Swan brings this notion home in the most visceral sense.

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Streaming Choices: Four Rooms (1995)

In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Rating: two and a half stars (out of five)

Courtesy of

Anthologies rarely fire on all cylinders. Four Rooms is no exception to this, though it features plenty of likable elements, particularly Quentin Tarantino’s riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (and namedropping of an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre), which features a roving camera with very few cuts and an absurdist drunken bet.

Tim Roth’s Ted the Bellboy provides the connective tissue as the only character to appear in all four segments, written and directed, respectively, by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Tarantino. Maybe it’s unfair to say this and I’ve been biased by a critic-created narrative, but it’s not surprising that the sketches get better as they go from relatively unknown filmmakers (Anders has done a number of television episodes for series like The L Word and Sex and the City and Rockwell a handful of small budget indies) to the hyper successful Rodriguez and the Hall of Famer Tarantino. They utilize Roth to different degrees, but his “speaking Mr. Bean on cocaine” performance is unlike anything I’ve seen him do. It grates at times, but in the latter two stories, he becomes the perfect vehicle for farce and a surprisingly effective straight man (albeit with a greedy streak) for the crazies in the penthouse.

It’s not all rosy, of course.  The animated spells and practical effects of Anders’s segment look atrocious, like imports from an educational children’s show.  They’re not supposed to be taken seriously, but they come across as the product of a filmmaker struggling to care about the material; Anders very well could have been roped into doing it, and it shows.  The witches in the coven, including Madonna, vacillate between trying to exude campy fun and stifling yawns.  In Rockwell’s section, he toys with noir genre staples like the femme fatale driving her man mad, and Roth gets stuck in between them during a psychosexual spat involving a big handgun, some rope, and a mouth gag.  It’s a confused, unsuccessful attempt to walk the tightrope between the noir of the setup and a spoof embodied by Roth’s everyman stand-in.

Rodriguez and Tarantino do what they can with their stories, and each is fun, but they’re both genre exercises without much to say about the world beyond, “We’ve seen farces (Rodriguez) and thrillers (Tarantino).”  Luckily the filmmaking collective here knows not to overstay their welcome, and each section is tightly edited.  The movie scoots along at just over an hour and a half, but doesn’t leave much to think about after it’s over.

Four Rooms is currently available on Netflix Instant.

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Welcome Back to Defeating Boredom

A little on where I’ve been since I last wrote here:

A year ago, I was busy finishing up college at the ripe age of 24, mostly because I can’t finish things.  I made it, though, but I quit utilizing this website in the process for studying and finishing projects.  I got the piece of paper that validated me as a person of value, so the world was the oyster which would kill me if I ate it; allergies and such. I moved back to Chicago into a fancy (re: not fancy, but we’re feet away from Lake Michigan, so that’s neat) apartment with my girlfriend, Emily, and our cat, Lloyd.

I got a “life changing” job where I had to wear a suit and sell satellite TV — and my soul — in big box stores with the promise of “owning my own company within a year if [I was] willing to put in the work and build up a team of like-minded people.”  If that sounds like a pyramid scheme, that’s because they were self loathers, because the only thing separating the business model from a pyramid scheme is that you don’t have to buy into it financially, until you count the “personal responsibility” of paying for your own gas when driving 50-60 miles a day.  And it worked hook, line, sinker for a guy with no real world skills and no other job offers.

At the “only job [I’d] ever have,” (Copyright summer 2013) they taught us all kinds of selling techniques, most of which revolved around how to control other human beings and how to delude yourself into thinking you’re having a good time when you’d rather have your head in an oven.  Examples included shaking your ass in a non-dance setting that is not at all humiliating and playing that insipid “Meow” game from Super Troopers that never, ever gets old with people who you were purportedly trying to woo to buy a product with a longstanding poor reputation.  I “put in the work,” and plenty of extra hours, but of course the results weren’t there because I’m an introverted mess with a martyr complex and a healthy skepticism of the notion that “the top one percent got that way because they worked harder than everyone.” (Copyright several meetings that conveniently forgot about cops, farmers, firefighters, plumbers, etc., summer 2013)  Oh, and a beard.  Holy Christ did I underestimate the effect a beard, even in our hirsute era, would have on my perceived trustworthiness.  If you can guess, I did not last long.  Two months and a few days, in fact.  But hey, I got to go to a conference at which I was served some pretty tasty potato pancakes, so I shouldn’t complain.

Enter unemployment for my first time as a non-student.  Holy moly, what a rush!  I went to a Cubs-Cardinals game for a bachelor party the day after I was fired, got drunk, and ate Chinese food.  Then they left and I had to search for a replacement job.  Ah, phooey.

So I made it my full-time job to look for a full-time job.  I watched a lot of movies in this time, which I could have easily been writing reviews for, but I had given up that nonsense months earlier to work “the only job [I’d] ever have.” (Copyright summer 2013)  I went on one of my patented “Director seasons” binges, watching a large number of Fritz Lang and John Carpenter movies throughout the fall.  I ate a lot of rice.  I looked for job after job.  I interviewed to be a dog walker.  Nothing came of it because I’m clearly not dog walking material.

A month and a half passed.  I got bored one day and buzzed all my hair off.  Don’t worry, I didn’t do any jarring, Royal Tenenbaums-style tonal shifts, although I did show off the wacky Christopher Meloni-but-with-a-widow’s-peak hairline I’ve had since I was four years old.  And what do you know, I got a new job.

I currently do in-store advertising for a marketing company.  You know those cardboard signs that hang in the aisles?  If you’ve seen them in grocery stores and pharmacies on the north side of Chicago since September, you’ve seen my handiwork.  It’s a fine job, one I don’t mind having.  It’s nice to have a blank check to procrastinate most weeks, when I can easily put everything off and work two 12 to 15-hour days back-to-back, like the erstwhile journalism student I am.

But therein lies the problem.  During the absolute busiest weeks, I get about 40 hours.  The rest of the time, I lounge around, read internet articles voraciously, play Lumosity, avoid washing the dishes, watch movies (98 this year when counting shorts. Yes, really.), and don’t sleep.

Insomnia out the wazzoo, first time ever.  I’ve tried the eminently healthy drinking myself to sleep approach, sleepy time tea, working out like a madman earlier in the day, counting sheep, the works.

So I changed things up a bit.  I made the unheard of choice to use my degree.  I pitched a story to a website.  They let me cover it.  They published me.  It was nice.

It was also pro bono.  I’m still in the “you have to do it for free before you do it for not-free” stage of pursuing my dream, so I’m pitching ideas to other websites, with one very exciting opportunity on the horizon related to my favorite rebuilding baseball team.  I need to drag this blog out of retirement.  I need to keep doing this free stuff until I find a job that wants me for my only skill: writing.  Because I’m not working “the only job [I’ll] ever have.” (Copyright winter 2014)

So what can you expect from the rechristened Defeating Boredom?  In the long run, I’d love to either make or, more likely, write about movies for a living, so film criticism of all stripes (reviews, think pieces about trends in the industry, filmmaker retrospectives, midnight movie experiences, hopefully some interviews with up-and-comers and theater owners, etc.) will be my primary interest.  But, like every cab driver you’ve ever had, I also have fallen in love with NPR’s long-form storytelling shows, like This American Life and Snap Judgmentso don’t be surprised to see me go down the rabbit hole with people I meet.  I’ve grown quite politically aware in recent years, so more political thinking will pop up with hopefully far less histrionics than you’ll see on real pundits’ sites; I’m more interested in the stories people tell and the trends they form, not so much in grandstanding in order to make a point about the evils perpetrated by the other side.  I have long wanted to return to my high school glory days of “discovering” new music, so perhaps I’ll finally start listening to Pandora again and writing about what new sounds strike me.  I’ve never posted fiction on here before, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t written it, so my attempts at artistry could rear their pretentious heads in the coming weeks and months.  But mostly expect a quality bump in my output, as I try to trade my hackiest tendencies for stronger, mature storytelling.

Speaking of hacky tendencies, here you go.

Welcome back, everyone.  I hope you enjoy your stay at the new Defeating Boredom.

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