REVIEW: A BIGGER SPLASH

a-bigger-splash

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Written by Dave Kajganich

 

Here it is, up at the top: ***SPOILER ALERT*** So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Sometimes I feel that films like A Bigger Splash are the ones that disappoint the most on a fundamental level. Most movies that I well and truly hate are easily identifiable from trailers and advertising, though a few slip through the cracks and surprise me in their aggressive awfulness. Hack-maestros like–for instance–Michael Bay occasionally hit you right between the eyes with films that seem accidentally transcendent (Pain and Gain). But films like A Bigger Splash fall into a frustrating kind of cinema purgatory: a critical space wherein the whole of the experience is enjoyable, or even beautiful and invigorating, and yet the moments of failure frustrate deeply enough to sour the sweetest of seductions.

Seduction is the name of the game from the first moments of A Bigger Splash, as our beautiful leading couple lounge in various states of undress in a magnificent villa. Sunbathing, sex, solitude, and all the sunshine that can be captured in one exquisitely photographed frame–these are the touchstones for the world we’re about to be drawn into, and one that’s about to be disrupted by the arrival of Harry, an aging lothario who stumbles into Marianne and Paul’s getaway at just the wrong (right) time, with his smoldering, estranged daughter in tow. Sounds like a recipe for delectable fun, right?

And so it is. To back up, the story involves a cold war/love triangle of sorts between the coupled Paul and Marianne, and the latter’s former lover, Harry. On the surface, everything is alright and the tension is playful, but underneath it all, dark passions are beginning to cloud all of the sun-choked and carefree gallivanting. Paul and Marianne’s relationship formed from the ashes of Marianne’s breakup with Harry, and their love seems to have had a calming, centering effect on the both of them; Paul has given up drinking and drugging, and Marianne has begun to settle her own demons (that are alluded to but never explicitly mentioned). Harry, meanwhile, seems to have filled the void Marianne left with plenty of partying, reminiscing on glory days, and pining for his lost love.

It’s all a convincing and compelling tapestry, and one performed exquisitely by its players, particularly Ralph Fiennes as the brash, bawdy, and clearly insecure Harry, as well as a nearly-mute Tilda Swinton in the role of rock star Marianne. What the two had and what still remains is apparent, relatable, and at times heartbreaking as the two stars’ magnetic personalities collide in a dance that should be familiar to anybody who was ever wrapped up in a doomed relationship that burned everything else to the ground. The film has a lot to say about how we parse relationships in conjunction with our sense of self, and hard looks at what constitutes a love that truly blossoms versus one that destroys. There’s also plenty to be mined about the at-times toxic and malignant nature of patriarchal heteronormativity. Harry and Paul are (former?) friends who barely speak to Marianne when she’s present, and fight over her like teenage brothers vying for a shared car when she is absent.

Here’s the trouble: A Bigger Splash sets a stunning table, but never quite delivers the banquet that has set our mouths watering for the first 2/3rds of its too-long two-hour runtime. There is an issue of severe pacing, one that leaves the audience wondering if the relationship between Paul and Marianne really seems worthy of such a violent–and ultimatley fatal–outburst, and one that, most frustratingly, sees Harry’s estranged daughter, Penelope, wedged into a Lolita-esque role that never evolves into much more than window-dressing.

Still, the film could have slunk away without raising too much ire if it left us to ponder the fallout of the climax, but it bafflingly continues, heaping on a pile of half-formed ideas that are designed to enrich the narrative, but end up burning a hole right through it. There’s some eye-roll worthy, half-baked allegories about Syrian refugees that go absolutely nowhere, but even these pale in comparison to a series of reveals about Penelope (Dakota Johnson, hitting all the right notes in a somewhat workwomanlike fashion), and this is where A Bigger Splash goes (pardon me) off the deep end.

For a film that posits much about the importance of relationships, the past, and identity, Penelope is treated as little more than an afterthought when it comes time to weave her into the story in a way that actually ties up loose ends. Beyond serving as a reminder of how utterly transparent yet alluring the desperate and rudderless can be, Penelope seems to have no organic place in the story. Her pseudo-relationship with Harry is never unpacked, her assumed dalliance with Paul is kept ambiguous and only barely touched upon in the final few moments before Harry’s death, and (most bizarrely) we find out that she has been lying to both Paul and Marianne (and perhaps to Harry, though this is also never explored), but in a way that has no discernible impact on the characters or narrative.

Pile all that onto a final few minutes that seem ripped from the pages of an overdue creative writing project and you’re left with an ending that almost completely erodes all of the good will the film spent the first 100 minutes carefully building. A Bigger Splash might be the most tragic outing of the year thus far, only because it promises so much and delivers so little beyond mood and performance. The experience of watching is enjoyable, but by the final credits, discerning viewers may find themselves wondering if they were thrilled less by the development of the plot and more by the seemingly oh-so-lovely lives that our beautiful and exotic principles are unraveling for our pleasure.

Tonal visual poetry is certainly an artistic feat in and of itself, and A Bigger Splash deserves credit for building the exquisite moods that it does, and the lovely, at times lyrical way that the story unfolds in the winds of the Italian countryside. However, this is a film that insists upon the drama and import of a narrative that ultimately builds to little. In the end, we’re treated to a series of delightful overtures that never quite coalesce into the symphony we’ve been promised.

Final Grade: C+

 

Am I Going Insane?

I usually don’t need to ask this until sometime around the August of an Election Year. This time around…hoo-boy.

Look, right off the bat, I need to make one thing perfectly clear. Donald Trump is a disgusting piece of shit who should be dragged out into a landfill and shot by teamsters. He’s a disgusting amoral greedbag who is actually running and already gasping-for-air country into the ground in order to grow his personal brand. I don’t know if he believes half the things he says, but he’s OK with spreading those beliefs to get ahead, which is no less disgusting.

That said, this Election coverage/reaction to the coverage (at this point I don’t even read news, I just sometimes click stuff my friends post on facebook, how sad is that) has really gotten out of hand. It seems like every week, the Internet has suddenly decided that Trump is now even more SUPER-elected even though it’s May.

Honestly, I don’t understand the rationale that says because Ted Cruz dropped out, democrats need to start losing their goddamned minds. It’s been clear that Trump was going to be the nom barring something ridiculous for a while now (and honestly, for my money, a Cruz/Clinton showdown is much less of a sure-thing than a Trump/Clinton showdown), so why all the sudden gnashing of teeth and rending of clothing? Equally annoying are the brave souls who are still saying with a straight face that “NOBODY SEEMS TO CARE ABOUT TRUMP BEING POISED TO TAKE OVER THE FREE WORLD.” How big of an egomaniac do you need to be to honestly believe that. Literally every single news outlet/person with a social media account can’t talk about anything else!

As for the election itself, I’m still of the same opinion I was many months ago: HRC/Trump in the general and HRC wins by a significant margin. Trump is too detestable, too inexperienced, too divisive. He has no traction with anything but hard-right white men, and even though it seems incredible, there just aren’t enough of those to win a general election.

Well, that will happen IF dems can accept that the Bernie ship has sailed and rally behind the nominee. I know everybody wants to keep waving the “Hillary is a War Criminal” flag, but this is Donald Trump. Anybody else, seriously. No, I don’t wanna hear it. Vote for the democratic nominee. I shouldn’t even have to tell you this.

For my part, I know what my options are at this point, so I may have to do a full election-news blackout in order to keep from losing my own goddamned mind.

My Trip to the ER

I haven’t had a long and prestigious career of celebrating 4/20, and this year was–well, I’m not sure how to finish that sentence. I guess it all depends on how you look at it.

I suppose I had more or less forgotten that the hallowed day was coming up, until I was texting with D about the wall-to-wall mindfuckery that is Tiptoes on one fine Tuesday evening. Somehow, this conversation led into running over the well-trod ground that is my having never seen Space Jam, and that in turn spun into a mutually reached decision that April 20th might be just the time for a double-header.

The complications? Such an endeavor clearly requires snacks, and D was ready, willing, and able. She purchased all of the necessary components or making guacamole and we were ready to have a nice, relaxing evening in, enjoying the spoils of our culinary prowess while we watched Michael Jordan dunk on cartoon aliens. And then, I had to go and ruin it all by slicing my hand open with a chef’s knife.

The sheer dumbassery of such a tale is compounded by the fact that I narrowly avoided slicing ANOTHER finger open moments before, when the blade glanced off the nail of my left index finger and took out a chunk, but did not break skin. “Whew, that was close!” I said, and switched from chopping an onion to pitting an avocado.

Idiot.

It only took two tries to extract that pit before the knife skittered right and sliced clean through my left pinkie. It’s a surreal moment when you examine the wound and see a huge gap where there shouldn’t be a gap, but no blood. Then: lots of blood.

I’m not a real queasy person, but I’ll admit that I was at something of a loss. Luckily D helped me wrap the wound up with a makeshift paper towel bandage and helped me get an Uber to the hospital. Once there she even stuck around the whole 4 hours I had to wait to get stitches, entertaining and assuring me that I didn’t need to apologize for ruining the evening. She was a real trooper, I must say.

I was prepared to feel like a huge jackass for walking into a Bushwick ER with a boo-boo on my pinkie, but it turned out to be a slow night. I got fast-tracked upstairs almost immediately, but from there it was a few hours of sitting in a chair, before being moved to another room where I sat in a more uncomfortable chair.

While waiting, I took stock of the other patients. One guy seemed to have a similar hand wound, but his may have been a crush injury from machinery (one nurse informed me that almost all the hand injuries they get at that location tend to be factory workers). At least one kid was very, very high on something, and some of their nurses kept getting him to stand up and walk around. It seemed like his grandmother had brought him. I wondered how she was going to talk to him about it the next day, if at all. Another kid was bleeding profusely from the nose, but seemed completely alert.

The doctor finally came in, asked what had happened, and barely reacted when I said I was cutting avocados. She cleaned the wound out, examined it, then told me the cut was too close to the nail-line and she was going to have to call a hand specialist. Another forty-five minutes later, the very annoyed hand specialist came in, looked at the cut, then left the room to go yell at the first doctor for not doing it herself. However, his tone changed somewhat when he prepped me for stitches and looked at how deep the cut was. “What kind of knife did this?” he asked. When I told him it was a very sharp, fresh-out-of-the-packaging chef’s knife he only nodded. “Why do you ask?” I wondered. “It’s a really deep cut,” he responded, sounding almost impressed. He then added, somewhat bewildered, that he sees at last 2-3 cases of avocado-related wounds per week. This was repeated by the doctor who examined my stitches nearly two weeks later. Anyway.

Watching the doc sew up my finger while pumped full of numbing novocaine was certainly an experience. By that point it was past midnight, and I couldn’t help but reflect on how this wasn’t exactly the night I had planned. By 1:30, we were out of there, and took a cab back to Ridgewood to finish the guacamole.

A Strange Assortment of Random Thoughts, Events, and Observations

  1. I wonder if the guy who played “Troy” on Scrubs ever uses it to try and get laid. I wonder if he’s ever successful.
  2. It’s hard to tell if girls at the bar are looking at me because they want me to talk to them, or if they are just weirded out because I’m looking at them.
  3. Bill Watterson is one badass motherfucker. I kind of wish he was my friend.
  4. Older bartenders like me. I’m not sure why.
  5. Most “typical” women in New York seem to be seeking a person who is a frat guy in a hipster costume. I think I might be close to the opposite of that.
  6. Drinking in low-key Manhattan bars sometimes makes you feel like you’re inside of a movie or television show.
  7. There is a certain pure pleasure that comes from standing in one spot in New York with your cell phone and ear buds in your pocket and watching all kinds of people go by. Especially when you are standing next  to a “No Loitering” sign.
  8. Central Park and museums are two things that New Yorkers always want to go to more, and they say this every time they go to either, yet they still only manage to go every now and again. Kind of like Angelenos and the beach, although in the summer I feel like I went to the beach almost every weekend.
  9. My biggest fear is waking up one day and realizing I fucked everything up, and this is paralyzing, and leads to me fucking a lot of stuff  up.
  10. Election years really bum me the fuck out.

Meet the New Food/Same as the Old Food

The past few weeks have been a period of culinary indulgence.

First there was the pre-Valentine’s day Cold Front dinner at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in Financial, followed by an equally as chilly dude’s night out at Lure Fish Bar in SoHo (it wasn’t until Arun arrived that I realized the interior was made to look like an ultra-luxe yacht). Last night, it was Leigh, Romaine, and Arun for an attempt to eat at Babuji that was quickly transformed into dinner at Duck’s Eatery. All reminded me that dining with friends is one of the great joys in life, and a particularly relaxing and decadent endeavor in New York. When you live in a place that sometimes feels like a hostile, sentient bear-trap full of cold weather and crazy people (I’m ready for even this relatively mild Winter to be over), paying an establishment an exorbitant amount of money to be nice and feed you delicious things can be a nice reminder–or serve as an illusion–that you’re still coming out ahead.

ANYway, Duck’s is on the same street as Motorino, one of the many upscale Neapolitan style pizza restaurants that dot the city like acne on a blogger’s face. Further discussion amongst the group eventually wound its way around to two things: 1)pizza’s newfound status as an Identity Marker and 2)what I might call “Brooklyn Boilerplate”–that is to say, the nouveau standard items to be found on any hipper-than-thou restaurant seeking to get featured in Gothamist writeups and the #foodporn hashtags of only the most discerning cool kids.

Brussel sprouts were my go-to pick, as they seem to be an appetizer almost everywhere I go, but Arun argued that they have already crested the wave of hip and receded back into played-out territory. Likewise with bone marrow and pate, though mac ‘n’ cheese seems to be continuing its high-wire balancing act. Just as gothninja and normcore eventually yielded to athleisure and something else I don’t know about, all of these staples have are slowly beginning to fade. As for what will replace them, only time can tell.

Pizza, in my opinion, is oddly occupying some sort of faux-niche/faux-hip status. For other members of my generation and beyond (that is, people in the early 30s and below), pizza had always been a default option. “Everybody” likes pizza, in a manner that transcended the former “fake wacky food obsession” golden child that was bacon. Pizza is the food of our childhoods, the sense memory item linked to one thousand nights in with family and friends and significant others, birthday parties, and little league celebrations. Throwing one’s arms around pizza always seemed a strange affectation for the cool kids, because pizza always seemed so populist, traditional, and above all, obvious. As I mentioned in so many words on twitter, the manic pixie dream girl who obsessively fills her social media feeds with pizza minutiae seemed like a dark analogue to the frat guy who is very vocal about how much he loves pussy.

Maybe this is the “new sincerity” that Jesse Thorne was talking about. Has hipness finally transcended irony? This was what I always wanted, but now that we’re here it feels strangely empty. I’ll still go to all the hip new pizza places and I’ll still throw down $20 for an 18″ pie from some anonymous spot in Queens, but I’ll never understand the need to paint one’s self as a “pizza person”.

There’s a First Time for Everything

I had never dropped a course after attending the first few classes, until this year.

 

There had been the “Introduction to Oceanography” course I eagerly registered for my first year at UT-Austin, fondly recalling my adolescent love of marine life and naive ambitions of studying marine biology. It was a moment of shameful deja vu when I acquired the textbook a few days prior to the beginning of the term, cracked it open, and stared with a tight chest at all of the graphs and equations and complicated looking charts before remembering that I had discovered, years earlier, that I was not and never would be a scientist, no matter how into sharks I had been as a 9-year-old.

 

This term it was “Comic Alternatives”, a course I had signed up for after snagging my first choice “Medieval Death” and failing to get registered in time for my second choice, “19th Century Transatlantic Literature.” The description sounded promising enough, and gave me the impression that the course would be a look at comedy the roots of comedy as a genre and the means by which comedy explores power dynamics in interpersonal and socio-political contexts. It sounded like just the type of fuzzy-headed liberal arts ballyhoo that I could get behind.

 

No such luck, however. I had ignored a few whispered, dire warnings that the Professor was a bit of a luddite, assuming them to a bit overblown. When I showed up to the first day, I sat with gritted teeth as a former head of the department (now returning-out-of-retirement-adjunct) pontificated at great length about what the course might be, what it definitely was not, and what would (probably) be expected of us. This was a man who clearly had some very strong opinions about the “youth” of today, as he muttered something about “laying off the phones” when a query about an obscure greek literary term was not met with an adequate explanation. I weighed my options for the remainder of the evening (it was my last chance to recover 3/4ths of my tuition), but I think that comment was the final nail in the coffin. I’m a grown-ass man who is paying a lot of money to take graduate courses and my phone was nowhere to be found.

Lord, deliver me from a future in which I feel my worth as a teacher can be measured in how inadequate I make my students feel, and make me the kind of old man who doesn’t bitterly weep for the lack of longform bluebook examinations in a 21st century graduate course. I still have unknowable amounts to learn for certain, but I expect, as all students should, to be met with good faith and treated with respect (so long as I prove I deserve it).

A Rising Tide Lifts All Clickbait…maybe

Greetings. I’ve been zipping around the country lately, but that’s not what this post is about. No humblebrags, except for this sentence, and the one preceding it. Anyway.

Two teeth-gnashing stories of note have hit the interwebs since I’ve been back, and they are closely related. The first is the “outing” of a Conde Nast executive by “journalists” at noted online clickbait-pushers Gawker.com, and the second is the hacking of the infidelity dating site, AshleyMadison.com.

Let’s start at the top. First, Gawker published an article essentially accusing the CFO of Conde Nast (which is one of Gawker’s chief competitors, it should be noted) of trying to hire a gay prostitute with basically no evidence at all, other than the word of said gay prostitute. The executive, whose name I won’t repeat here, is not a public figure; nobody knows his name, he has no high profile public statements or opinions of any kind on record. Essentially, the bastion of journalistic integrity that is Gawker decided to more or less ruin this guy’s marriage and professional reputation because…

Well, that depends on what you believe. In a series of jaw-droppingly out-of-touch-with-reality tweets, the editorial staff at Gawker defended trashing the life of a person who actually works for a living more or less on the grounds that the “story” is factual (debatable) and interesting (debatable). A few even took a harder tack and claimed that they wrote the story because the executive was a cheater and deserved everything he got.

This should be eerily familiar to anybody who has a passing knowledge of the state of American journalism at the turn of the 20th century and beyond. Ever seen L.A. Confidential? The folks at Gawker would feel right at home sharing stories of exploitation and ruined careers with Danny Devito’s character, and would probably possess a few of the same ham-fisted justifications for their vile and despicable muckraking hackery, the only difference being that editor of Hush-Hush magazine actually retains some sort of self awareness and winking acknowledgment of how ridiculous his “journalistic ethics” argument is.

The coverage of this fallout up until now has focused on the alleged cultural shifts occurring within the Gawker network, with even the more right-headed articles swallowing the narrative that the gossip rag’s now more about money and less about speaking truth to power. Let’s not get it twisted: THE ENTIRE GAWKER NETWORK HAS ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT MONEY, as is evidenced by their wholesale “outrage-on-demand” editorial direction that you can see in every one of its blogs and others like it (looking at you Salon). More importantly, though, the “journalists” in question and their steadfast refusal to accept responsibility for their utterly boneheaded, disgustingly cynical, and bafflingly cruel garbage-writing is only the latest in a long line of stories that underscore the public’s newfound obsession with appointing itself judge jury and executioner over any person they can get their grubby little, cubicle-atrophied paws on.

We’re no longer content to demand blood sacrifice from people who have the audacity to be famous (hint: we made them that way), now it appears to be open season on private citizens and their private lives, as massive hacks at AshleyMadison.com have apparently been justified with the same “they deserve it” refrain. From leaked nudes to stolen songs and films to possibly fabricated stories about infidelity, we’ve all apparently convinced ourselves that anybody who does anything even remotely questionable–even in private life–deserves the full uninformed and screechy fury of the Internet. This notion even spills over into the oft-derided “social justice warriors” that love to splatter the faces and words of comedians and artists they deem unacceptable all over blogs for daring to have opinions that run counter to whatever the mainstream happens to be at that exact moment. All of it is connected; from grim-faced articles with headlines like “why Amy Schumer isn’t funny” to twitter campaigns to get somebody fired because they used the word “dongle” in a funny way (note: this actually happened), we’re all frothing at the mouth to see people go down, and it doesn’t even matter what their net worth is anymore.

It’s hard to say which came first, the outrage or the industry, but sites like Gawker and its network blogs like Jezebel make their bones by claiming to be some kind of moral crusader when they’re just trying to sell clicks to people whose lives are so empty they actually get angry about what a person they will never see with their own two eyes and who has no measurable impact on public policy or opinion whatsoever said about rape one time. It’s possible that the two high-level Gawker employees who quit with all the fury and drama of a high school theater star earlier this week have come to truly believe that they are the Millenial Woodward and Bernstein, which is even more alarming than greedy idiots continuing to be greedy idiots–a cynical person may be damaging, but they aren’t unpredictable. The chosen ones always are.

But maybe this is a good thing, overall. The coverage of these two things seems to reflect an attitude shift in the way (writers, at least) feel about this kind of nonsense, and it seems like people have begun to have enough of the “HOW DARE YOU NOW PAY ME” crowd. If dumpster fires like garbage continue to implode, maybe, just maybe, the alternatives (legacy media with actually educated and trained journalists) will be able to do their jobs again.

A man can dream.