Sunday, May 16, 2004

SATURDAY NIGHT MISCELLANY. Saw a couple movies recently. Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is pretty good. The premise is terrific: given the chance to wipe a defunct love from your memory, would you abate your romantic torment by wiping it, or would you allow the experience to teach you something? Kaufman seems to assume that most of us, given the tech, would wipe. That's a canny observation, but he loads the deck too much by making the wipers such morons that they cannot articulate any sound philosophical reasons for doing it. Kaufman has guts, but lacks the dramatic training to acknowledge and exploit his own dialectic. Bad ideas exist for a reason, and the desire to deny experience, rather than work through it, has a lot of resonance these day. Why not give it a fair hearing? Making the wipers mere weed-addled cowards is just too easy.

(Also, wouldn't Jim Carrey wake up if Kirsten Dunst were jumping on his bed in her underwear? I know I would!)

There's still a lot to like. I admire that jealousy is a big idea in Kaufman's films. (The Farrelly Brothers are obesessed with it too; I think it's their saving grace.) I salute that he wants to explore big feelings. Even his hippie-trippy way of doing it (collapsing landscapes, ridiculous techonological McGuffins) is okay with me. But he really is too sloppy about it. If the movie followed its best instincts, Joel and Clementine would have stayed broken up. That's what romantic disappointment is really about -- not saving relationships, but improving survivors. That's why the quasi-reconciliation ending is such a drag, and probably why the studio put it on a shelf for so long.

Also saw Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes -- a total piece of shit, so weak and rambling and wasteful that it made me hate the Jarmusch movies I used to love, and I've been following him since Chang in a Void Moon. How dare he foist these feeble improvisations on paying customers? Even Iggy, Tom Waits, and Bill Murray look like patsies in this. Thank God for Taylor Mead and Bill Rice, who bring some much-needed dignity to the proceedings.

Fortunately I got some brain-balm from an old S.J. Perelman collection, Keep It Crisp. I've tried to enjoy SJP on the page before and failed; though his lines for Groucho are sublime ("Ah, I could dance with you till the cows come home -- better yet, I'll dance with the cows till you come home"), large blocks of his wordplay always seemed to me rather too much of a good thing before. But once you get into a rhythm with him he's wonderful, and not all the pleasures are from surface effects. Among the better items is an invented interview by a sweet young thing of a Broadway wise guy ("A Power Dive into the New Journalism"):

As soon as we were alone, Dexteride's air of reserve vanished. He mixed two ginger-ale highballs, adjusted the Venetian blind so that the sun wouldn't shine in my eyes while I was writing, and seated himself on the davenport by me. I told him our readers wanted to know what he was thinking about Tommy Manville these days. He frowned.

"Hats off to that question," he said seriously. "It's a good one. I'd say that Tommy is a man that is in the prime of his life at present." His eyes twinkled. "Funny thing about age. Now, I place you about eighteen years of age."

"I'll be twenty-three in March."

"Then I'm in the clear, he said, with a deep, full-throated chuckle that was thoroughly infectious. You knew instinctively that this warm, friendly man enjoyed simple things and people, and still there was a wholesome faith, almost akin to idealism, about him. Somehow I saw him standing at the right hand of King John on the Field of the Cloth of Gold as the Magna Carta was being signed. I asked him to outline his personal philosophy.

"I believe the day is coming when it will be possible to tell a person's age from his hands," he said. "I've made a study of the subject over the last few years. Take yours, for instance." To illustrate his theory, he gently manipulated my fingers, showing how excessive writing causes fatigue and how the soft cup of the palm acts as a cushion.

"As a matter of fact," he went on, "a girl with your type hands shouldn't be engaged in your particular type work. You ought to have a little spot of your own, which you could stick around all afternoon in merely a kimona and play with a little poodle or so"...

The inspiration is a certain style of magazine-writing from the War Years, but the gag is out of Restoration Comedy, or maybe Chaucer. Hats off to SJP!

Of course, if you want to survey the work of a vastly inferior modern author, you may read some of my latest here.

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