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Archive for June, 2011

Let’s talk about Julie & Julia, because why not?

At the center of this charming movie lies a whip-smart premise. Writer/director Nora Ephron gives us two stories at once; we get a biopic of legendary chef Julia Child and a chronicle of New York blogger Julie Powell. Ephron adapts the material from two books — one by Powell, one by Child. The split narratives unfold with next to no overlap. Child’s story, after all, takes place before Powell was even born.

So far, nothing new. Plenty of films have used a dual- (or tri-, or quad-) narrative structure. Anyone who’s been to an art-house cinema can tell you that.

In Julie & Julia, however, the construction does something special. It urges you to view one story as real and the other as fantasy. In short, the Julia Child portion of the film runs inside Julie Powell’s head. Ephron doesn’t offer a straightforward account of Child’s life. She offers a highly romanticized view of the woman, as imagined by Powell.

Let’s look at the evidence. Julie & Julia strikes constant parallels between its leads: They’re both ambitious, looking to make names for themselves, both married, both seeking to become published writers. But look at how they differ. Child’s husband is an unflappable saint. He remains always by her side, forever supportive, and never once loses his patience with her. He embodies the perfect spouse for the struggling artist. Always giving, never taking. Powell’s husband, meanwhile, does lose his patience. He gets all huffy when she devotes too much time to her ambition and not enough time to him. He becomes a blockade to her success as a writer. (more…)

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A little over a year ago, I’d seen just one film by Werner HerzogGrizzly Man. I was mystified. The movie’s subject, Timothy Treadwell, was the kind of man for whom documentaries were invented. He electrified the screen. His footage, his story pinned me to my seat. But, like a movie talker seated a few rows behind you, unseen, there was Herzog — narrating, mumbling, inserting himself into the narrative. I bristled. Why would a filmmaker pollute such powerful footage with verbose commentary? How was this different from Michael Moore, another documentarian whose ego overshadows his subjects? When will this German man stop talking?

That was 2006. Though I had no idea at the time, former Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski felt the same way. I can’t imagine a more vicious takedown of the man than this passage from Kinski’s deliriously violent memoir, All I Need Is Love.

His talk is cumbersome, sluggish, fussy, pedantic, choppy. The words fall from his mouth like rubble. It goes on and on, flushing out his brain snot. Then he writhes, bullshit machine that he is; an old model whose off button doesn’t function anymore. I have to punch him in the face. No, I have to knock him unconscious. But even unconscious, he would keep talking. Even if someone cut his vocal cords, he would keep talking like a ventriloquist. Even if somebody cut his throat and separated his head from his torso, words would issue from his mouth like foul gas. I have no idea what he is talking about — except that he is fascinated with himself for no obvious reason and is baffled by his own endowment, which is nothing more than dilettantish ignorance.

Today, having seen 11 Herzog movies in the last year, a small part of me fears Kinski was right. As a detractor might put it: Herzog hates coherence because it gets in the way of his own megalomaniacal musings. He loves his obsessions, and, in turn, the sound of his own voice. His delivery — slow and portentous, like a proselytizing child — might as well be trademarked. He has cultivated a brand, which appears to give him carte blanche to mine every idiosyncratic rabbit hole he desires. His inescapable narration or left-field asides don’t baffle us anymore. They leave us gushing, “That’s so Herzog.” (more…)

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