Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Mistress America

           Girls Just Wanna Have … Are You Sure This is Really Fun?
                                               Review by Ken Burke
                  The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)
A 15-year-old in 1976 San Francisco suddenly finds her boring, constricted life changed when she starts having sex; however, her joy at bodily pleasure has a major complication in that her most regular partner is also her divorced mother’s boyfriend so what begins as a revelation with added animation enhancements soon becomes much more traumatic.
                                  Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Tracy’s just started college in NYC but is having a hard time making friends so she takes her mother’s advice to connect with the slightly older woman soon to be her step-sister when their parents marry; Brooke proves to be very lively if guilty of living on the edge a bit too much so Tracy attempts to help her get needed financing from her rich former boyfriend.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.

What Happens: It’s often said about the arts that what makes an individual work notable (if not necessarily “great”) is its capacity to inspire active discussion in reviews and/or direct conversation, even when that talk becomes oppositional between those who support or reject the work in question.  (This phenomenon is related to the “Any publicity is good publicity” dictum from the P.R. and advertising departments of various media-product-corporations, as drawing attention to the book, movie, TV show, CD, etc. is a means of keeping the product in the public’s consciousness—especially necessary in the crowded-media-markets we endure today—but what I’m discussing here is more about value judgments and social impact rather than mere awareness.)  This concept was put into practice for me last weekend when my wife, Nina, and I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl with our usual group of close friends out for a regular Friday-night-cinematic-adventure, with the post-screening-discussion over drinks taking a surprising turn (for Nina and me because we both liked the film) as 2 of our companions were completely disinterested—if not outright troubled—by what they saw while another one was able to “appreciate” it, “in the deepest sense of ‘appreciation’ (which is to say that, to me, it is not a question of ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ it).  (This quote and some others further below taken from emails to me later over the weekend as the conversation continued.)  With that as an opening premise, and much more on this topic to be addressed in the next section of this posting, I’ll just say here that The Diary … makes for an interesting pairing with Mistress America (which I saw with another friend the next day, resulting in much more placid agreement) because they both involve traumatic situations for young women (teens of 15 and 18 in The Diary … and Mistress … respectively, along with a young-adult-hesitantly-approaching-30 also in the latter film), so let’s set the scene here with the contents of these 2 intriguing coming-of-age-stories (Mistress …’s Brooke [Greta Gerwig] is still in that process herself, despite her older, often-confident-assumptions that she’s in command of any environments she chooses to invade).

 While director Heller of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is also the screenwriter, she adapted her story from a 2002 graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner (with some disputes between Gloeckner and others as to how autobiographical the depicted events might be; whatever the case on that issue, Heller’s been fascinated by the material for quite awhile, first adapting the print version to the Off-Broadway-stage in 2010, with the lead role of teenage Millie Goetze played by Heller herself).  In this 1976 San Francisco setting there’s none of the charm of another recent conceptually-similar-tale, Inside Out (Pete Doctor, Renaldo Del Carmen; review in our July 2, 2015 posting) where a (younger, in that case) contemporary girl also explores the environment of Tony Bennett’s “City by the Bay” (Ready for one of my inappropriate sideways diversions?  If so, here's Tony, from his concert with Lady Gaga at the Concord CA Pavilion on May 28 2015 which Nina and I had the pleasure of attending [the spotlight on him’s harsh, though, so here’s another version in better exposure; location and date unknown])Inside Out’s Riley is lonely for her former Minnesota home, wishes that her Dad spent more time with her than at his new job, and presents most of her difficulties as inner-conflicts between her various emotions attempting to take command of her mind.  Conversely, in The Diary …, while we get a lot of voiceover reflections from self-critical Minnie (Bel Powley) about the conflicts brought on by her emerging-raging-hormones (with illustrations of her moods and fantasy-tinged-perceptions frequently popping up within the photographic space she occupies on screen, either as enhancements to what she’s feeling—as with a great shot where her exuberance has literally given her wings—or as projections of what she’d like to add to her isolated-space-environments—as with her imaginary dialogues with actual underground cartoonist Aline Kominsky [shown only in animations]), most of what we see is very much from the external world, presented in graphic fashion (just short of an NC-17 rating, although Pawley’s now 23 [21 when the film was shot] so calm your fears about any actual Lolita-style-child abuse/pornography on the set), as Minnie begins her ecstatic commentary by saying “I had sex today.  Holy shit!”—with the real shit involving her partner, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who’s not only 35 but also’s the boyfriend of Minnie’s strung-out-mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig).

 It’s not much of a shock that Minnie’s ready to shed her virginity—along with any remaining illusions about the happy world of childhood—given Mom’s horrible approach to parenting where Monroe just lounges around their apartment at will in various stages of undress (surprisingly, he’s got his own place [with a nice view of one of the big bridges; it could have been the Golden Gate or maybe the newly-named Willie Brown span of the Bay Bridge that reaches out to my East Bay territory, hard to be sure from a quick glance], but that’s needed latter for his frequent encounters of the most obvious kind with Minnie), drug-consumption-parties with Charlotte and her friends seem to be regular events (with Minnie and her friend Kimmie [Madeleine Waters] joining in on some coke-snorting later in the film), and Minnie having nothing to learn from Mom’s nihilism or ex-stepdad Pascal MacCorkill’s (Christopher Meloni) haughty sense of superiority to Mom’s non-role-modeling-skills (I had to sort of piece together later that at a young age Charlotte became pregnant with Minnie as the result of an involvement with someone who doesn’t factor in at all here, then married Pascal and divorced him; he later moved to NYC, offering Minnie the chance to live with him which she rejects.  However, he does seem to be younger sister Gretel's [Abigail Wait] father as he keeps insisting that she call him "Dad" instead of "Pascal," as Minnie's determined to do.) which have left Minnie ready to blossom into a full-blown-social-rebel, disdainful of most everything she sees around her (except for the underground comix of graphic artists such as Kominsky), especially still-playing-by-society’s-rules-Gretel.  Minnie’s affair with Monroe begins with his subtle breast-play one night on the family couch, followed by her slightly-later-challenge for him to round the bases with her which he eagerly accepts (on a night when Mom’s too busy for either one of them so she suggests Monroe entertain Minnie, which he does—at a bar; still, he’s not presented as either a repulsive pedophile nor a charming lothario, just a guy in the right place at the right time—for him—to take advantage of opportunities that literally land in his lap, unacceptable as they should be—but aren’t in his dim-witted-case, although later he does try to end the relationship with Minnie but succumbs to her screaming-insistence), with no hesitation about on-call-further-follow-ups.  

 Ecstasy over her newly-found-“adulthood” leads to voluminous cassette recordings as her diary (she apparently prefers the spoken to the written word, with her paper diary instead filled with drawings of not-so-attractive-people, in the familiar Kominsky and Robert Crumb styles) and increasingly-inappropriate-celebrations with Kimmie, culminating (maybe I should have said “climaxing”) in a bar (another of this story’s lawless premises—probably [hopefully? I have no idea what SF was like 40 years ago] a bit exaggerated-for-impactful-purposes—is how easy it is for these girls to just stroll into bars and order drinks) in them giving blowjobs in the restroom to a couple of guys as if they were hookers (which Minnie admits later was something they shouldn’t do again, so I guess she does have some limits early on as to where her new lifestyle is leading her).

 Now that she’s a woman of (at least a very small part of) the world, Minnie also gets into some sexual hookups with an interested high-school-classmate, Ricky Wasserman (Austin Lyon), but that has its limits for him because she’s so aggressive and knowledgeable (thanks to Monroe’s uninhibited tutoring) that he’s clearly more scared than satisfied.  Minnie’s happily on the prowl, though (with her new-found-confidence also encouraging her to contact Aline by mail for advice on a cartooning career), until Mom discovers the tapes, which then leads to one of the strangest plot twists I could ever imagine—after trying to figure out on her own for several hours what to do next, Minnie finds Charlotte and Monroe in a bar (where else?) with their proposal that he should marry Minnie as the only way to bring stability to their grotesque situation (Nina thinks they weren’t serious but merely were trying to freak out Minnie—I’m not sure about that, as I could understand Charlotte‘s distress and desire for retribution but not Monroe’s, unless he’s just angry that Minnie provided evidence of their involvement, which could lead to jail time for him [another dose of normal-reality that seems to have little presence in this particular story]; I’m still just stunned that this might even feasibly have seemed to be a “solution” in the minds [?] of these “adults,” even in 1976 post-Summer-of-Love SF).  Minnie’s response is to race off to join another outcast friend of hers, Tabatha (Margarita Levieva), seemingly ready to go for girl-on-girl-action with her, at least until she wants Minnie to join in a threesome with a guy she needs cash from which propels Minnie back onto the streets again.  Finally, after a couple of days, she returns home, to be welcomed back by Charlotte and Gretel, with Mom seemingly now more in league with Minnie’s needs as we close on them in a club together (“If anyone asks, we’re sisters”), mother and daughter united in the quest for substance-fueled-escape and more appropriate (?) men (on a more-uplifting-note, when she comes home Minnie finds a response from Aline encouraging her to be true to herself and her art; later when selling that art on Ocean Beach—with the famous Cliff House just out of full view of the shotMonroe happens upon her, with little to say as it’s clear their relationship is completely over).

 In Mistress America there’s a somewhat-similar-presentation of young souls trying to find solace in an uncaring world, along with intra-familial-conflicts, although the “family” in this case hasn’t come to be yet, as new-college-freshman Tracy (Lola Karce) has begun her post-high-school-life at Manhattan’s Barnard College (all-women, just like my long-time-employer, Oakland’s Mills College, but with a good number of men in her classes who come from nearby Columbia—Mills has men also, but only as grad students so their only overlap of the genders for undergrad classes comes from programs that mix both levels of students—mostly English, Music, and Pre-Med), where she’s not meeting new friends nor having any success being accepted into the Mobius literary society, although she’s starting to get closer to a fellow-rejectee, Tony (Matthew Shear), until he suddenly begins a relationship with hair-trigger-jealous Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).  In an attempt to help her lonely daughter, Tracy’s mother suggests that she call her soon-to-be-stepsister, Brooke, who also lives in the city so that they can meet before the families gather at Thanksgiving to plan the upcoming-family-merge.  Tracy meets Brooke at Times Square where she (a bit older, never attended college) has a small apartment (we later find out she shouldn’t be in it because the area’s zoned commercial); their rapport is instant, leading Tracy to spend a lot of time with her almost-sister, hanging out at the apartment rather than on campus, becoming enamored with Brooke’s plan to open Mom’s, a restaurant/community center (sort of like the Chilean-refugee-inspired La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley CA but without the sociopolitical aspects), a plan on the verge of collapse unless Brooke can raise $75,000 for some immediate payments on the property, with her unbridled enthusiasm having already led her as far as she can go with anonymous investors.

 One source of cash who’s not anonymous at all is former boyfriend, Dylan (Michael Chernus), a guy with abundant family money who’s now living in a huge, lavish CT home with Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), whom Brooke says stole Dylan away from her, along with her cats, and her T-shirt idea that Mamie-Claire then sold to J. Crew for a fabulous sum so that she’s wealthy as well.  In that Tony’s the only one among the NY foursome with a car, he’s recruited to drive Brooke and Tracy (along with Nicolette, who can hardly let Tony out of her sight for a minute without assuming that he’s cheating on her, despite never any evidence to support her concerns) to the countryside to convince Dylan to be part of the support group for Mom’s.  At this point, Mistress America veers off into pure wacky screwball comedy (given that context, I can’t help but wonder if Tracy’s name comes from Spencer Tracy, sometimes cast in these stories, such as Woman of the Year [George Stevens, 1942] with screwball queen Katharine Hepburn, as I’m sure that savvy-scriptwriters such as Baumbach and Gerwig would be aware of this) as idiocy prevails among this fragmented group (joined by Karen [Cindy Cheung], a member of what appears to be a book-club-for-pregnant-women organized by Mamie-Claire [the only one of the group not well on the way to delivery, apparently not pregnant at all] and an initially-hostile-neighbor, Harold [Dean Wareham], who soon settles in for the afternoon as well).  What begins as Brooke’s pitch for restaurant financing—in which she displays a clumsy approach that would convince no one, that is until she’s suddenly joined by enthusiastic, much-more-effective Tracy—that Dylan‘s ready to accept even over Mamie-Claire‘s objections, turns into a group-evisceration of Tracy because Nicolette’s come across a copy of Tracy’s short story, “Mistress America” (a title taken from one of Brooke’s other ideas, about an office-worker-by-day, superhero-by-night protagonist), a slightly fictionalized account of Brooke (now called Madison) and her restaurant quest that acknowledges the utter futility of the enterprise.  In revenge for Tracy trying to put the moves on Tony (unlike Monroe, he resists), Nicolette reveals the writing which leads to a group reading, followed by uniform attacks on Tracy (made even worse with the revelation that Brooke got a call from her Dad that the wedding’s off so even the quasi-sisterly-bond is now broken).

 Back on campus, Tracy submits the story to Mobius anyway, gets accepted to the group, then becomes quickly disenchanted with their snobby attitudes so she throws her new status-symbol—the Mobius briefcase—into some nearby water, then sets off to make amends with Brooke.  Tracy has to enter Brooke’s barricaded apartment (the landlord finally caught up with her) through a neighbor’s fire escape, they connect again (even though Brooke, after having paid her debts with money finally forked over by Mamie-Claire for the T-shirt-design-theft, is on her way to LA where she says that her lack of knowledge of literature will be no hindrance and she might even go to college), followed by Thanksgiving dinner in a diner (Tracy’s mother needed an escape from her misery so she took advantage of friends’ offer to join them on a Caribbean vacation), not the big event originally planned for that day but one that now feels more satisfying for the almost-sisters.  While they weren’t dealing with any of the sexual explorations and resulting crises from those encounters that had plagued Minnie back in her day on the other side of the continent, Tracy and Brooke each had to navigate their own challenges of entering adulthood (or continuing to re-enter, in Brooke’s case, something that Minnie’s mother, not that much older than Brooke, still hadn’t been able to negotiate the last time we saw her), forcing them to also question what really matters to them, how to find closure (or at least a semblance of it) in difficult situations, and how to find some direction “home” in situations where family ties prove to be marginally-helpful at best in trying to understand their internally-confused-personas (Tracy makes a strong stab at focusing on her own needs rather than turning to others for validation by applying to start her own lit club in the spring semester, hoping to begin the recruitment with Tony and Nicolette).  At least we know that when the “sisters” depart that Brooke has truly made an impact on Tracy, as the younger “sibling” tells us in VO (just as she read to us from that Brooke-based-short-story several times throughout the film) that other people are simply “matches to [Brooke’s] bonfire,” a poetic compliment of the highest order in my view.

So What? As I noted at the beginning of the review, my regular cinema-viewing-group had some starkly-opposed-responses to the presentation of actions and consequences (or absence of such) in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, with the strongest rejection coming from Michaele O’Leary-Reiff (who’s allowed me to share her opinions and has solid credentials to back up her position, being both a Registered Nurse and an Individual and Family Counselor with specialties in health and wellness, acute and chronic illness, grief and loss).  Her take on the film is as follows:

 “It certainly stimulated some strong reactions, which is good, and led me to explore more why I absolutely did not find any redeeming quality in the film.  Unfortunately, it is not an uncommon story in our world, given the number of lost, abused and mentally ill youth and their narcissistic, absent parents, but when you attempt to show the darker side of life, there needs to be some balance, which I found lacking in this film.  It was a serious story that was not taken seriously.  

I realized later that I think I go to movies mostly to learn something or be entertained, and in watching this film neither was the case.  I also like to be challenged and intrigued by film, and again, maybe a little challenged by the level of disturbance and annoyance I felt, but not in a way that brought me to feeling any redemptive value or resolution in the film's intention or lack of.  

I get it that it is a story told from the point of view of a seriously neglected, misguided and troubled teenager, left to fend for herself, with many typical self-loathing as well as normal feelings of adolescence (i.e. body image, not being loved, curious about sex), and I know it was portrayed as a story without judgment.   I guess what was disturbing for me was the lack of essence in any of the characters, a pitiful, creepy, loser guy (Monroe) made to seem cute and even innocent in some ways, a self-absorbed mother who should have been sent to the learn-how-to-parent farm for life and a useless stepfather whose role in the film did nothing but further exaggerate the overall dysfunctional milieu.  Not even a good friend with some level of discernment to share.

 Yes, Minnie was portrayed as ‘happy and liberated’ when she first had sex, discovered her sensuality and easily seduced Monroe (an obviously satisfying means of revenge towards her mother), but as the film progressed, she was not happy as she descended into more insecurity, high-risk, self-destructive behaviors (drugs, alcohol rape fantasies, thrill seeking).   I think with the backdrop of the 70's, a time of demands for sexual and reproductive freedom, gender equality and in my view a healthy sexual revolution, this film showed it only as sexual disintegration into more high-risk behaviors and experimentation, which was certainly true for many who did go to extremes and paid a huge price for their behaviors.  However, the fact that there was no consequence in a laissez-faire environment was disturbing to me, and I am not exactly sure how to interpret that, except to say that it left the impression (especially for younger, more vulnerable viewers) that this was an acceptable means to self-awareness, being loved and feeling valued. 

Finally, regarding the end where everyone seems to be suddenly healed and rescued from themselves was hugely disappointing.  It's not that I think the story, apparently based on a real situation, was not true in its darkness, but there was not one sympathetic character (well, maybe the animated Crumb [like] cartoonist [Aline], which I will give you was a welcome bit of creative relief).  The film lacked karma—not meaning good or bad—but as in there are consequences to all our actions, and karma is the teacher.  There was no teacher.  [bracket clarifications mine, KB]
To me, a film with so many sordid characters and unleashed behaviors, rife with pathos, deserved more than a litany of manipulative sexual escapades and toxic relationships with a patronizing token few moments of a ‘happy ending, everything's all right now.’”

 Other comments that emerged that night and later included concerns that none of the characters were likable nor sympathetic so it was hard to care what happened to them and that The Diary … “challenges its viewers by getting into taboos territory and does so in a creative, out-of-the-ordinary way. Perhaps the most challenging aspect (especially for audiences in our particular society) is the refusal to include any value judgments—which is not uncommon in films from other cultures.”  Nina said that she could easily recognize the Alice in Wonderland-like-qualities of this film, the subterranean-desires Minnie had about breaking out of strictures previously defined for her (relating to Nina's own teenage experiences with rule-making-nuns in her Catholic-school-upbringing, a rule-enforcing-mother at home, fueling a desire to rebel—even if sex wasn’t part of that rebellion for her during those years).  Nina greatly liked the film, as she could relate to the thrills that Minnie experienced by experimenting with aspects of life previously closed to her, as well as the need to find some direction for herself given the lack of encouragement toward that in her home life (with the acknowledgement that as the middle-child of 7 her parents were likely overwhelmed with just keeping up with all of their brood’s activities each day, especially with her mother usually forced into the role of family disciplinarian while her father tried to stay on an even keel with everyone).  As for me, I can agree with Michaele in having no attraction for any of these characters, but that didn’t put me off from the film.  If anything, it helped me appreciate what the filmmakers were exploring with situations that are bereft of engaging people or desirable outcomes.  That’s not an easy set-up to work with, especially when you want to encourage your audience to yell “No! No! No! Don’t do that!” at the screen (in a more lift-up-the-species-perspective than simply trying to save a clueless heroine’s life in a genre-grinding-horror-movie), fearful of or disgusted by the events of your art.  For me, the lack of a “teacher” here is the point, that people such as Charlotte and Pascal barely have reason to marry, let alone produce children if they’re to be raised with such dismally-ill-prepared attitudes and abilities to give understanding and guidance to their offspring.

 I don’t mean to imply that The Diary of a Teenage Girl is some subtle propaganda piece from Planned Parenthood (God knows, they’ve suffered enough unjustified abuse from right-wingers trying to fabricate excuses to shut them down lately) under the guise of a Hollywood movie advocating well-thought-out-birth-control-considerations long before irresponsible decisions become manifest in family photo albums, but I do think that this film is not about “a ‘happy ending, everything’s all right now,” but instead is an expose of the squalid results of poorly-chosen-coupling, careless childbearing, irresponsible parenting, dereliction of adult responsibility, and dreamily-romantic-assumptions of media-saturated kids as to what sex, love, adulthood, and reasonable choices are all about.  I noted to Michaele local SF-dominant-voice-film-critic Mick LaSalle's review in the San Francisco Chronicle (August 14, 2015, Section E, pp. 1, 6 in print; the Web version also contains a 5:38 video of LaSalle talking at further length about the film)—a guy we agree can be both insightful and pompous (No, I really don’t think I’ll ever be voted into the SF Film Critics Circle; why do you ask?)—who says of Minnie, “she’s an active participant in her own victimhood, and everything she does makes her situation worse.  In her we see the makings of a confident, assertive adult—or of someone who’ll end up outlined in chalk by 1977,” a statement that I agree with.  (As well as somewhat accepting his close: “Yet, ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ has one drawback that should not be denied: It is not a pleasure to sit through, not even remotely, not even by some stretched definition of the word ‘pleasure.’  It’s work, but it’s ultimately rewarding work.  It tackles some truths that other movies wouldn’t touch, not even with a stick and thick gloves.”  I, however, didn’t find it so much “work,” possibly because I see this as a sad warning tale, not one that even implies I should celebrate it.)  Michaele also agrees with Mick on how Minnie must make life-affirming-decisions soon but doesn’t “think that the film did much to promote that.”  

 In rounding out these viewpoints, I’ll also take issue (fully realizing the responses I may be creating for myself by doing do) with LaSalle’s statement that the presented sex is “utterly joyless, with neither pleasure nor appeal” so as to not make it “erotic and titillating”; Minnie may not have any sense of the love to be shared by 2 people with its culmination in a sex act, but I wouldn’t say that she’s not displaying pleasure with most of her various hook-ups, whomever they may be.

 So, is The Diary of a Teenage Girl a worthwhile experience, “refreshing … in its moral complexity” (Mick) or is it lacking “any redemptive value or resolution” (Michaele)?  For me, it was a pleasure to watch, not an unexpected one either, because this time the trailer did a fairly honest job of presenting what was to come in the actual film, at least in the realm of Minnie’s joy at her move into assumed-adulthood along with the various animated expressions of that liberation shown in their fanciful manner, just as unreal as the self-image that she's deluding herself into believing; the harsher aspects of her sexual emergence aren’t part of the trailer, though, so I can see where viewers might get tricked into thinking that The Diary … is more whimsical than it actually is, thereby leading to a feeling of disappointment—or even disgust—with what they’re actually given on screen (although, perverse as their actions may be, it’s truly hilarious when Charlotte cokes herself up so that she’ll have the energy to clean their apartment, just as Minnie has no qualms about recording thoughts about her sex life while riding on a city bus).  Minnie may have started to learn what Charlotte is telling her about the power she has over men with the appeal and promise of her body (even if undelivered by other girls of that age, just as enticing but more cautious/ manipulating/scared than she is), as Mom dreamily reminisces about her own allure in her pre-parenthood days, but I never saw Minnie as being at all mature about this new-found-world of pleasure, especially in scenes with Monroe where she can switch from being a nakedly-confident (both literally and metaphorically)-ingénue one minute and a pouting, emotional child the next.  As noted above, I do think that Minnie shows intense pleasure in her sexual activities (even reveling in her dominance over boys her own age) until it all begins to get more complicated, more unpredictable, more physical than fanciful as she sees the dark paths her compulsion may take.

 La Salle calls Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) “cold” because there are hardly any warm or approachable characters in it, just as I could say the same about another cinematic powerhouse, Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966).  I’m not saying that The Diary of a Teenage Girl is of the caliber of those 5-star-masterpieces, but it is, in my opinion, an intriguing look at how complex seemingly-simple carnal pleasures can become, how the “joy” of substance-indulgence can blind a parent to the responsibilities that they owe to their children, and how difficult it can be to find a meaningful life when the most insightful lessons you find for guidance come from the intended-exaggerations of graphic novels.  There’s a lot that’s kept conveniently-fictionalized here—especially the complete lack of moral and legal repercussions for Monroe as he so willingly gives into to this emerging-adolescent’s sexual desires—but that artistic disjunction from reality is what this film needs in order to get its sad, complex messages across (with my understanding that for some viewers those messages are muddled at best, not even conveyed at worst, although I have enjoyed my local-group's-dialogue—and highly respect Michaele’s thoughtful rejection of this film despite her conflict with my opinion—in working through the experience of this challenging celluloid-graphic-novel come to life).

 As the narrative eventually winds down in Mistress America, we get the sense that Tracy and Brooke have enjoyed the ultimate results of their confrontations as well, with Tracy, like Minnie, also having to grow up quickly in an environment where she has no role models (her mother’s a lot more caring than is Charlotte Goetze, but this mom’s got her own life to manage at a time when Tracy needs to find a useful path for herself, especially in a complicated environment like NYC where she could easily be led astray by any number of lovers, muggers, and thieves [oh, wait, that’s Boston—from The Standells’ “Dirty Water,” a 1966 hit—but those terms and their allied considerations could easily be applied to Tracy’s new home as well so you might as well take another sideways distraction and listen to it if you like, as long as you’re not a New Yorker or Bostonian who can’t abide the idea that anything about the one city could stand in for the other; even if so, you shouldn’t get too upset because the musicians were from CA anyway]).  Brooke definitely realizes as she approaches 30 that she can no longer get by on just self-assurance, autodidact learning, and interesting ideas that she can’t see to fruition (she also is coming to know that at times her sunny disposition, her ongoing celebration of life—where she’s a much of a bar-mentor to Tracy as Charlotte’s became for Minnie—and her creative thinking aren’t always enough to counter the irrational wickedness of someone like Mamie-Claire, who admits to Tracy that she did steal the T-shirt idea from Brooke just because she doesn’t like her, a situation exacerbated by Brooke’s initial stalking of Dylan and Mamie-Claire in retaliation for the loss of the earlier relationship).  For me, the insights aren’t as fully intriguing in Mistress America as in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, given that anyone with the ability to get into college then stay there for the education to be offered soon has to find that their more-cloistered-teenage-worldview (even if they're in the reigning campus cliques) needs to be rethought, probably largely put aside as more-encompassing-understandings emerge, just as anyone approaching 30 with still no clear foundation to build on surely is aware of such limitations even if it takes some dramatic event to push forward an emergence from hanging-on-too-long-to-adolescence into a life of more-responsible-future-plans.

 Still, there’s enough marvelously-crazy-comedy in the Connecticut section of Mistress … to keep a viewer interested, happy, and ready for whatever else comes next in the lives of these oddballs (including when pregnant Karen’s going to realize that she shouldn’t be drinking so much wine while partaking in the mounting absurdity of her neighbors’ lives, waiting for her extremely-late-husband to show up); both of these films have value for my level of interest in what they have to offer but the ratings don't quite match because their strengths and attractions ultimately become very different.

Bottom Line Final Comments: I’ll begin this segment of the review with The Diary of a Teenage Girl director/ screenwriter Heller speaking to her own intentions (from the film’s press kit)“I do think we have to retrain our minds a little bit as audience members— being OK in seeing these stories about girls instead of just boys. As girls, we have been trained for a long time to relate to a male protagonist, to feel their stories and to be invested in them. And there’s no reason why we can’t invest in female characters the same way. Or why boys can’t watch this movie and think, 'Oh I relate to Minnie, even though she’s a girl.' That’s OK. I had to read 
Catcher in the Rye and relate to Holden Caulfield. When I read Phoebe’s book I thought this is how boys must feel when reading Catcher in the Rye. So, why can’t boys watch this movie and relate to Minnie? It’s a two-way street. Sexuality is something we’re both experiencing and so if one side’s perspective is reflected, the other side should be reflected too.”   Of course, when that “other side” is sex play where Minnie invites Kimmie to join her and Monroe (which she’s quite willing to do) or when Charlotte, remembering her own sexual allure (“When I was your age, I was quite a piece.”)—resulting in Minnie at far too early an age for her mother—has no better sense than to spend some of the $1,000 that Minnie and Gretel convince Pascal to send (after Mom loses her library job) to finance a drug party for her friends (along with Minnie and Kimmie), you can see where this double-dollop of debauchery might leave some of Heller’s audience aghast at what happens when the “girls” (including Charlotte, in attitude if not age) put on the catcher’s mitt.  For me, though, this film isn’t celebrating debauchery or claiming that Minnie’s better off for having plunged into her many sexual escapades; instead, I see it as a precautionary tale, warning sex-curious-teens to think clearly about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it (along with how, as I don’t recall pregnancy protection in any of Minnie’s encounters), especially if they’re getting next-to-nothing as guidance from their elders (as Minnie says, in final VO: “This is for all the girls, when they have grown.”)

 However, I admit that the R rating (for nudity—including a very thoughtful scene where Minnie sizes herself up in the mirror—simulated sex, drugs, etc., which probably had the Ratings Board in full agreement before they were even 20 minutes into the screening; in Britain it got our equivalent of an NC-17 so it takes semi-full-adult-status—in that U.S. older teens still can’t drink legally until age 21 even though they can see fully-mature-movies—for a UK patron to get in the theater at all) will likely restrict the most-appropriate-target-audience because I doubt that too many parents will see this film with their young teenagers, but at least maybe it’ll inspire some useful family talk after the fact.

 Sadly enough, the R-rating-gate also somewhat restricts the audience for Mistress America, this time based merely on language and some sexual references (as if teenagers’ lives aren’t already filled with such, but, then, our U.S. film ratings system rarely operates with what Mick LaSalle calls “moral complexity”), so once again a segment of a conceptually-appropriate-audience is kept at bay from a film that may be quite well-written-comedy (mostly) for a sexagenarian such as myself who appreciates the quirky situations and fluid dialogue but is watching from afar a story that could serve as a useful exploration of the pitfalls of un- or poorly-reflected-upon-life-after-high-school, but at least they’d be able to see it in their college-freshman or just-post-HS lives so that the film’s considerations about how easy it is to lose yourself in loneliness-driven-exploits and half-baked-life-schemes can be experienced by those who’d most directly benefit from these messages, purposely-exaggerated as they may be in structure and delivery here.  While it doesn’t raise as many quality-of-life-issues as does The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Mistress America does do a fine job of forcing consideration about how to live a self-directed-life rather than one constantly in response to someone else’s lead, how to understand when your own lead has begun to run aground, and how little you can often put your trust in someone you don’t know that well as personal paranoia and ambition often overtake more reasonable interpersonal interactions, possibly leaving you at the mercy of unknown assailants (just ego-killers, fortunately, not deranged homocidalists) for reasons that may not be known nor shared by you.

 In an effort to offer sincere praise when it’s due, I’ll turn the final spotlight on Mick LaSalle again, calling your attention to a lengthy response to a letter in his Ask Mick LaSalle column in the Sunday SF Chronicle Datebook section of August 23-29, 2015, specifically p. 21 
(also available here, although I think you have to be a print or electronic subscriber like me to get the full text) where a reader states “that I find myself wishing I was born 30 or 40 years earlier in order to inhabit the same world as the [young] characters” of a favorite film (I’ve often had this thought about at least briefly existing in the 1930s environment of Chinatown despite the rampant racism, sexism, and other social restrictions that permeated that period; the entire aura of that film’s milieu beckons to me nevertheless).  LaSalle responds:  “In the end—unless there’s a war or some terrible privation—every era is a great era in which to be young.  The challenge of youth is to recognize the splendor that’s in front of you … Thirty years from now, you’re going to see a movie that captures the glory of 2015, and you’ll wish you were there … You’re in a better movie right now, and it’s happening on all sides of you.  Don’t miss it.”  This is the advice that Minnie, Tracy, and Brooke needed to internalize; we have good reason to hope that the latter 2 almost-sisters are awakening to that invaluable insight, we can only hope that it happens for Minnie (and, maybe someday, her mother) as well.

 Now, to bring this ramble to a close here are my official Musical Metaphors for these films (the previous songs far above were just to break up the flow of my verbosity with some pleasant—again, depending on how you feel about Boston—music).  For The Diary of a Teenage Girl I think we can safely say that Minnie would agree with the personal-independence-attitudes of The Animals’ “It’s My Life” (from the 1966 album, The Best of the Animals) at and may well have heard it on his mother’s stereo as it had been around on the radio (at least as an “oldie”) since she was 5, along with the sense that Mom was trying desperately to hold on the aura and residual elements of her own youth, so I can see this defiant song as speaking to both of the Goetze “girls” (maybe someday to Gretel as well, but we’ve seen little of that spark of obedience-defiance from her so far).  One difference, though—a deciding factor in choosing this specific video clip—is the casual sexism of this Hullaballoo TV broadcast where there are women’s heads on the wall behind the band, seemingly as trophies for the male musicians (with most of the women following along with the concept, giving us frowning faces as if they were in league with today’s hunting-trophy-scandal, Cecil the Lion, late of Zimbabwe, although one of them is bopping along in time with the music so I guess she didn’t mind being the one that the singer tells “some day I’ll treat you real fine”).  However, if you’d like a more updated performance of Eric Burton & The Animals delivering this song of self-acknowledgement, here’s a version at RELO9So from the annual San Javier (Spain) International Jazz Festival on July 22, 2011.

 For Mistress America I think that an appropriate Musical Metaphor would be Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” (from the 1977 Rumours album), with the original music video (seemingly a live performance shot in a studio) at https://www. aiTKIXqs, given the individual directions that Tracy and Brooke eventually choose for themselves (but if you’d like an updated performance from these folks as well, here’s one at https://www. SA recorded at the Boston Garden on October 10, 2014; it’s not the best audio quality—OK, the video’s a bit kinetic as well, although it matches the great energy of the song—but it’s at least a record of roughly how they sound now with all of the most-well-known-members of the group back together for the first time in years and Lindsey Buckingham absolutely “electric” on guitar, plus this is from the same tour that Nina and I saw in San Jose, CA in December 2014 so I can testify to the impact of their delivery).  Of course, if my awareness of pop music spanned the decades better after roughly the 1970s then 
I’m sure I’d be better aware of women singing their own driving, upbeat songs about choosing personal freedom, but I’m not, so unless someone has some suggestions for alternatives for now just remember that these offerings are just final metaphors enhanced with music for the films under review, even though in this case they’re being sung mostly by men instead of what would be more-appropriate-women if I had more tunes in my head to pick from.  (With a further potential complaint about my choices being that even though Christie McVie and Stevie Nicks add harmonies to Buckingham’s song the content is about his breakup with Nicks, with some lyrics that she doesn’t particularly appreciate [especially about her "shacking up"] even though she’s willing to give a fine effort on her vocal delivery anyway, a more generous response than I’d ever expect Monroe to get from Minnie or Mamie-Claire to get from Brooke, but hopefully all of us grow into better options for forgiveness as we age, so maybe they can all end on a note of mutual acceptance just as our little “film society” did last weekend despite any differences we encountered with what was projected that night.)
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about The Diary of a Teenage Girl: (29:49 interview with director Marielle Heller and actor Bel Powley)

Here’s more information about Mistress America: (12:34 interview by Rolling Stone Peter Travers with director/co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach and actor/co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The End of the Tour and Straight Outta Compton

                        Exploring Darker Realms of the Arts
                                              Review by Ken Burke
                          The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt)
Based on real events, this is a cognitively/emotionally intense recounting of the short relationship between famed author David Foster Wallace on his latest book tour and author/reporter David Lipsky in 1996 as these men explore creativity, success (and its problems), friendship, and trust in a story with very little action but lots of worthwhile contemplation.
                          Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray)
An attempt at chronicling the complex merger (then breakup) of talent that constituted the “gangsta” rap group N.W.A. in the late 1980s-early ‘90s, as 5 talented but troubled musicians attempted to share their anger about racial discrimination and police brutality in their LA surroundings, leading to great success but infighting then pushed them into separate careers.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
What Happens: While there aren’t a lot of surface similarities between the 2 films up for consideration in this posting, I do think there are connections in the treatment of famous artists and their relationship to the pain associated with their various successes, whether that disruption comes from inner turmoil (as depicted in The End of the Tour) or external pressures (as depicted in Straight Outta Compton) so I’ll attempt a combo review here, focusing on the ultimate overlaps while noting the obvious differences in content and approach.  However, in that neither of these scenarios are all that familiar to my personal experiences I’ll start with the specifics of the one that I can best relate to, The End of the Tour, not because I’ve ever been (or known) a famous author—nor have I worked in the offices of Rolling Stone or any other culturally-significant publication (although some could make an argument that such a description applies to Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark—with the understanding that those who do so are usually allowed outside of the sanitarium only on holidays)—but because I’ve spent a good bit of my life (so far, that is; as the musty joke goes, Young Man: “Hey, old man, have you lived here all your life?”  Old Man: “Not yet.” [a rejoinder also used to fantastic effect in the Seinfeld TV episode, “The Pitch” [1992, 4th season, 3rd episode] where George is making the case that the series idea he and Jerry are proposing to NBC would succeed, despite its mundane content, because “It’s on television,” to which network president Russell Dalrymple simply replies: “Not yet,” a joke that David Foster Wallace seems like he’d have appreciated, given his interest in popular culture’s narcotizing ability, as explored by his book, Infinite Jest) in academic settings, such as the one where Wallace (Jason Segal) teaches (in the film he lives in Bloomington, IL, or at least in the snowy outskirts; the real Wallace taught at Illinois State U. in Normal, right next door, so there’s seemingly not much fictionalization happening so far; as it all gets more intimate between the 2 men I can’t really know without reading Lipsky’s book about these events); despite his increasing fame as a novelist with the publication of Infinite Jest (1996) neither his location in the middle of the Midwest nor his discomfort with having to abandon his classes for a couple of weeks while on tour with his book give any sense of literary nor academic stardom, another aspect of his life that I can relate to, given that I rarely cancelled a class, even when I had to take red-eye-flights to conferences that began the next day.

 Admittedly, though, I can relate just as much to minor author/current (in 1996 that is) Rolling Stone reporter, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) in this story, as he’s legitimately fascinated with Wallace’s literary ability but also is envious of his success, wishing that his own novel, The Art Fair (1996, same year as Infinite Jest, and with a lot of actual critical praise, but you’d never know that from this film), had attracted even some of the attention given to Wallace so that he could establish a career writing hardcover fiction rather than having to convince a magazine editor to take a chance on an article about a type of artist that this socio-musical-publication had never bothered to explore.  Lipsky’s finally given permission to meet Wallace (wrestling with early fame at age 34), then spend 5 days with him as the book tour comes to closure in Minneapolis (where they’re driven around by eternally-sunny-even-if-she-can-barely-stand-it Patty the publicist [Joan Cusack, marvelous even in such a minor role]).  Certainly when I was a functional, well-respected-enough Film Studies prof (emeritus now that I’m retired, droning on in a film-review-blog instead of a classroom) at Mills College (small student population, liberal-arts orientation, for women only at the undergrad level), Oakland, CA, I had obscure visions of being more significant in my field, somehow being the one that others looked up to rather than simply doing such looking (this is clearly the message you get about Lipsky from this film script, although his real career has been quite notable, with his non-fiction Absolutely American [2003] getting many honors as being among the Best Books of the Year, as did NPR so name his account of his brief time with Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself [2010], which serves as the foundation for this screenplay; he’s still a Contributing Editor at Rolling Stone [although the article on Wallace was never published], as well as a creative writing teacher at New York University’s prestigious MFA program).  So, with just that much to attempt to attach my interests to, I found myself fascinated by the eloquent dialogue and interpersonal investigations that Lipsky and Wallace do of each other in this film, although I can’t say that I learned enough about either of them; still, when all you have invested in another person is a mere 5 days you don’t have much time to delve very deeply, nor does it necessarily leave you with enough to construct a satisfactory cinematic story on without some creative elaboration.

 The story arc is about LIpsky, beginning in his cluttered dwelling where in 2008 he receives the phone call about Wallace’s depression-fueled-suicide (he’d been on an 8-day-watch for this earlier, tells Lipsky he felt his life was over at 28), then moving for most of the film through the flashback of their spate of intense interactions, concluded by a brief reading from his Although of Course … account of their encounter (with an interesting final-credits-interruption-scene of Wallace alone talking about “just me and him” into Lipsky’s tape recorder), yet the focus of the film is on Wallace, along with Segal’s marvelous portrayal of this creative, introspective, oddball character (wounded by a failed romantic relationship, living in isolation with his 2 beloved dogs [whom he now prefers to dating, despite his unrequited need for a companion, especially his crush on singer Alanis Morissette] generous with his time and material sharing with Lipsky—puts him up in the spare bedroom rather than letting him stay at a local motel [oddly stacked with publishers’ copies of various books, even though Infinite Jest was just his second novel; maybe they were gifts in recognition for the fame that …Jest was drumming up] and encouraging their mutual late-night-scarfing of Diet Pepsi and junk food [along with their constant cigarettes, although Lipsky also swigged a goodly portion of alcohol, not shared by Wallace, likely to prevent interactions with anti-depression-medication]).  What keeps this narrative interesting is how, even within their seemingly-instant-rapport, neither of these guys is truly predictable nor completely open to the other but instead are at times consumed by their own private needs.

 Lipsky’s always looking for some beyond-the-recorded-conversations-information to make his article more embellished—if not lurid (on the record he asks Wallace about his reported one-time-heroin-addiction, which draws a fierce denial response)—poking around in Wallace’s medicine cabinet, giving himself a concise, private catalogue on his hand-held-tape-recorder of Wallace’s living environment, noting random details that might better inform his final text.  Wallace suddenly becomes possessive of an old friend (possibly girlfriend, although he doesn’t introduce her as such) from graduate school, Betsy (Mickey Summer), when he perceives Lipsky hitting on her (his defense is that he’s simply getting her email address for a follow-up interview for the article) rather than taking what Wallace seems to assume is the more reasonable avenue of exploring a connection with her friend, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter [you can easily see the resemblance] who’s currently competing with herself for ticket sales just as she’s competing with her own Mom as feuding mother-daughter characters in Ricki and the Flash [Jonathan Demme]; interestingly enough, her character in that movie’s also named Julie), although he’s mostly furious with Lipsky for interest in either of these Minneapolis ladies given that he knows Lipsky has a girlfriend, Sarah (Anna Chlumsky), back home in Manhattan.  This leads to a bitter parting between the 2 men, with Wallace’s only peace offering as they separate being a warning to Lipsky that the life of fame's not all it’s cracked up to be, that the famous may be the ones to crack (as Wallace ultimately does 12 years later, hanging himself after many other acclaimed writings, many of them non-fiction).

 There’s also the death of a major character in our other based-in-reality-cinematic-spotlight-feature this week, Straight Outta Compton, that of N.W.A. (Niggas Wit Attitude, a no-apology-stance by these outsider rap performers) founding member, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), of AIDS complications toward the end of the film, just as 2 other key members of then-disbanded-group, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., son of the actual rapper/movie star), and Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) have finally agreed to put their previous hostilities aside and literally “get the band back together” in the mid-1990s.  Given all of their mutual accessibilities to weapons and bodyguards (as well as the actual East Coast-West Coast 1991-1997 hip hop rivalry that resulted in the deaths of Tupac Shakur [1996] and The Notorious B.I.G. [1997], with both killings still unsolved) it’s a wonder that no one else associated with N.W.A. ended up in the morgue even within the short span of this film (1986-1995) because hostilities ran high, fueled by goading from managers Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) with N.W.A. and Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) of Death Row Records, who lured Dr. Dre away from his former bandmates, after Dre had participated in the public dissing of Ice Cube once he left the group in 1989, frustrated about Heller’s managerial tactics.  In those few early years of N.W.A.’s success, though, everyone was clearly on the same side, at least as far as working together as a coherent unit to get their anger-fueled, anti-discrimination, anti-harassment message out to the public at large.  (Although Jerry is portrayed as being much more in league with Easy-E [his co-founder of Ruthless Records] at the expense of the other 4 in the ensemble—the remaining ones being DJ Yella [Neil Brown] and MC Ren [Aldis Hodge], with the latter, like Ice Cube, responsible for writing much of what the group sang although the royalties distribution set up by Heller didn’t reflect that, a major cause of Cube’s decision to go solo [quite successfully, in both the music and movie worlds, with his notable serious role in Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991)—also the name of an Eazy-E song on the debut 1987 album N.W.A. and the Posse—followed by more comic personas in the Friday, Barbershop, and Are We There Yet? series (respectively directed by Gray [1985], Steve Carr [2000], Marcus Raboy [2002]; Tim Story [2002], Kevin Rodney Sullivan [2004]; Brian Levant [2005], Carr [2007]), as well as other notable dramatic and comedic roles].)  

 In Straight Outta Compton, Dre and Cube came together in 1986 with a desire to merge their talents but needed financial backing to get a single cut, so they turn to E and his drug money, bring in Yella and Ren, soon find themselves upward bound but needing better management, provided by Heller (who does stand up for them against police harassment, as shown by a scene where cops suddenly descend on them just because the 5 Black guys are standing out on the city sidewalk, taking a break from their recording session, although his ultimate concern is for them to become a financial success, no matter how that may interact with their arguments about free speech).

 Success, in the form of the 1998 Straight Outta Compton album ultimately breeds contempt, though, as Cube splits off on his own, only to be crudely dissed in the next N.W.A. release, causing him to respond in a similarly-obscene-manner on his next album, all of which stirred further mutual resentment, followed by a decision by group bodyguard Knight to form his own label, fronted by Dr. Dre (and, ultimately, new discovery, Snoop Dogg [Keith Stanfield]), but that first required his contract release from Ruthless, an action that comes after a “ruthless” process in the recording studio where Knight’s thugs beat Easy-E into submission (the actual Knight denies this happened, but given his various—and current—legal problems about violent acts of this nature I’m not sure that he’s got much “credible deniability” to work with here).  Time goes on, all of the former N.W.A. members—along with Snoop Dogg—enjoy various levels of successful careers, followed by reconciliation between Cube and Dre (based on the commonality that they’ve both left Jerry Heller’s orbit) with the goal of a group reunion that depends on finding a way to work with E again (which becomes available when E fires Heller for embezzlement), only to have that option shot down when his sickness suddenly comes upon him.  He deteriorates, then dies, leaving us with the impression that the rest of the group reformed for some new recordings ad/or concerts, although that never happened; the only more-or-less N.W.A. reunion concerts were from the 2000 Up in Smoke tour, headlined by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, with performances by Ice Cube and MC Ren (plus Dre’s disciple, Eminem)—all of whom you get glimpses of in actual footage of them shown at Straight Outta Compton’s conclusion (which also allows us to see, within the semi-fictional recounting, Dre breaking away from Death Row, to form his own company, Aftermath Entertainment).

So What? In the case of The End of the Tour the most important aspect of this film is how the 2 main characters enter into lively, thoughtful, mature conversations about the creation of written art, the need to find something more substantial in our culture than the distractions of constant offerings from mass-media-machines (a much more all-consuming phenomenon 20 years later with the addition of the Internet to the already-all-pervasive presence of TV, video games, movies, pop print publications, etc.).  However, you’ve got to be open to this intellectual exploration being the driving force of the film or else it’ll probably just feel like My Conversations with David (depending on which David you’re most interested in listening to), an imaginary-sequel to the completely-conversation-bound-2-actor-tour-de-force My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, 1981).  At a certain level, this intended-engagement-strategy of The End of the Tour worked well because—whether this dialogue is the result of the many cassette-taped-transcriptions of the actual discussions between Lipsky and Wallace or has been brought to this level of erudite intrigue by scriptwriter Donald Margulies—it was fascinating to watch 2 writers butt their respective hesitant-but-abrasive and withdrawn-but-grasping personalities against each other to see what would result.  However (and this may just be within my shortcomings as an observer of this very unusual premise for a feature film), if Infinite Jest was such a game-changing masterpiece in its era—with its somewhat futuristic setting, sharp level of satire, and challenges to the novel’s conventions with such devices as endless endnotes—then I’d like to have found more about this seemingly-profound-book worked into the story, especially given that we know that Lipsky was impressed with it (for its content and approach, not just because of its material and intellectual success) and that Wallace was impacted by its reception, enough so that it seemed to worry him as to whether he dared write anything else or not, as well as being upset that the Rolling Stone article would be shaped by someone else rather than himself.  

 Thus, rather than having to look up summaries and analyses of this milestone book (which, admittedly, I’d never heard of—nor Wallace for that matter—before this film; although, that’s nobody’s fault but my own because I’m rarely in tune with what’s the happening trend in current literary circles), I’d like to have had it integrated into the film more, discussed, probed, just so that those of us without prior knowledge or understanding of Wallace and his importance to the contemporary writers of the world could get a better idea of why he’d ever have been a likely subject for Rolling Stone to begin with.  I realize that I have to accept the premise of his notable presence for The End of the Tour to matter to me at all, but when it was all over I’m still not quite sure what moved Lipsky so much about this enigmatic, depressive, fundamentally-sad man.

 Another aspect shared by these 2 films is that both depend on the perspectives of just some of the participants in the drama being explored, so that while Wallace emerges as the more important member of the … Tour twosome, what we’re getting has been shaped by Lipsky (as recast by Margulies, then honed into final shape by the actors, director, and editor as the completed film comes together) so we’re not getting a balanced account of these initially-close-then-competitively-soured-individuals but instead are understanding Wallace as he was understood by Lipsky.  Similarly, with Straight Outta Compton we have an account of 7 major characters in the N.W.A. saga (Easy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, MC Ren, Jerry Heller, Suge Knight) but 3 of the primary producers here are the actual Dre, Cube, and Tomica Woods-Wright, widow of E (played by Carra Patterson) so once again major players in the real story are heavily involved in how it will be told, so we just have to hope that what we get on screen is viable in terms of inclusion, exclusion, emphasis, and implication.  Already there are oppositional voices citing notable omissions, such as Dee Barnes' claim of physical abuse of women (including herself) by Dr. Dre.  As one of the record executives in the film says, “I don’t know anything about rap,” which certainly applies to me as well, with my only exposures being multiple viewings of Boyz N the Hood (I showed it on a regular basis in my Film in American Society class), Eminem’s 8 Mile (Curtis Hanson, 2002), and the occasional TV performance by somebody or other, usually on Saturday Night Live, so my response to Straight Outta Compton may be way off-base, possibly should be taken with however much salt you need to totally dissolve it or whatever.

 But I must say that despite the furious passion the filmmakers bring to their subject here, the marvelous sense of embraced-response they show of audiences toward these so-called “gangsta rappers” (what they illuminate about the treatment of people of color by a scared, threatened White-power-structure helps clarify who the real gangsters often are in our society, at least at the top levels more so than those involved with street crime and person-to-person-deaths), and the no-holds-barred-lyrics of N.W.A. which directly name and challenge what they refuse to tolerate any longer (although they’re fighting back with consciousness-raising-social-commentary rather than the armed militias of the much-earlier-Black Panthers)—all of which are commendable in attempting to undermine the secondary status that these disenfranchised LA citizens have had imposed on them—the overall result comes across to me as at times just too hagiographic in support of these social-justice-crusaders as well as pushy-melodramatic in terms of internal conflicts within the N.W.A. and the external conflicts created by their dubious managers.  Possibly the biggest problem is trying to condense the complexity of so many lives and directions—which naturally overlap the 1991 Rodney King situation with its resulting all-cops-not-guilty-trial (although a subsequent 1993 federal violation of civil rights trial did result in jail time for 2 of the 4 assaulters) coupled with the 1992 “No Justice No Peace” riot-response from a stunned, justifiably-angry Black community—into even a slightly-longer-than-usual 2 ½ hr. film.  It’s a noble effort that’s being received well by critics and audiences, but for a novice to this material such as me there’s just too much crammed in to properly hold together as well as some of the individual scenes do.

Bottom Line Final Comments: The life of the mind, as explored in some extremely-well-crafted-interpersonal-interactions in The End of the Tour is potentially a fascinating, intriguing subject to watch unfold on screen when carried off well (as it is here) by top-flight-actors (especially Segal, demonstrating that light romantic comedy isn’t all that he can totally command), but, truly, I just found it a bit too esoteric overall.  David Foster Wallace makes it clear that, despite his fame and admitted intellect, he never wants to lose his “regular guy” credentials, that even that constant bandana on his head (which he began to use while writing in the heat of the Southwest as a means of keeping sweat off of this face, then he retained as a kind of personalized-security-blanket) is about the simple oddity that a plainspoken person would unselfconsciously manifest, not some artistic affectation.  David Lipsky, on the other hand, insists that when a reader makes the decision to plunge into a 1,079-page, 3 lb. 3 oz. book you expect something special, something that emerges from a superior intellect; if that’s true, though, I still want to understand better what was in that book to bring about such an admiring reaction.  Yes, I want to know this in the context of this film (beyond Wallace’s self-evaluation, of “Why do we feel so empty?”) rather than as something I research on my own (which I’m willing to do anyway, and have done in pursuit of writing a review that offers both you and me better substance here), but that’s to make the film more complete, more expository about what it was in this novel that drew such attention and adulation, not because I just refuse to do research on matters unknown to me.  (In fact, if I didn’t do all the digging around on the Internet that I do before I write an analysis of a complex film such as this one—or one with a lot of unfamiliar content for me as with … Compton—I’d be able to save several hours of blog time a week, but it’s not about background research, it’s about what makes a film feel better resolved, more in command of itself; in this case I think we need to understand in more clarified examination what it is that’s driving the fascination with Infinite Jest as well as what allows its author to bring forth such a compelling written experience from the depths of his disturbed psyche.)  

 Anyway, that’s my not-quite-4-stars-complaint about The End of the Tour, at least until I read that monstrous book which might change my attitude about what this film chose to do with Wallace's tome and its account of the author (my better-read-than-me-wife, Nina, ordered it for us so I’ll get back to you in about 10 years when I’ve finished reading it), although I can’t believe that director Ponsoldt really expected his potential audience to be familiar with this weighty novel before seeing his film or else it’d probably have grossed even less than the $405,650 (much less than half of its budget) earned in the 3 weeks it’s been out.  The film has to work on its own for those who know Infinite Jest and the vast majority who don’t.  For me, the interactive-all-dialogue-all-the-time-approach of My Dinner with Andre accomplishes this task whereas The End of the Tour needs to keep us on its road a little longer to completely connect (if you’d like to know more about Wallace, here’s a place to start; you can also explore the links for this film below to watch the real Lipsky talking at length about his brief but very-consequential-time together with the famed writer).

 Conversely, regarding Straight Outta Compton no one should even attempt to argue the ongoing relevance of still-unresolved-race-relations in contemporary American society (and knowing what I read about violent conflicts and discrimination between the White/Mestizo majorities and the Native and other-ethnicity-citizens of Canada and Latin America, I freely use the term “American” here to refer to the whole of the Western Hemisphere, not just the USA) where we still have to be reminded constantly that “Black lives matter,” “I can’t breathe,” and “Why am I being stopped for not signaling a lane change?”  Even in my own supposedly-liberal-bastion of the San Francisco Bay area there’s another addition to that growing litany of law-enforced-brutality as several SF cops pinned down a homeless Black man with a prosthetic leg, handcuffing him as his rear end was exposed to the world for several minutes before he was taken away—certainly nowhere nearly as bad as the deaths from the other incidents and many more like them just alluded to but still indicative of the unbalanced encounters between aggressive White police and Black victims of their actions that are now much more known and debated because of cell-phone/mandated-police-cameras—even though as a society we’ve been well aware in mass-media-coverage for over half a century how dangerous it can be in many parts of our societies to commit the “crime” of being non-White.  (A useful addition to my previous review of the Brando semi-autobiography, Listen to Me Marlon [Stevan Riley; review in our August 13, 2015 posting] notes in great detail how some members of the dominant culture, such as Brando despite his unconventional lifestyle not always accepted by his dominant countrymen either, have also made efforts to publicize the plight of the oppressed.)

 Therefore, Straight Outta Compton is a story that still needs to be told for the 30-year continuity to the present it provides (made all the more emphatic with use of news clips from the era of the film, showing us how naïve we could be during those long-ago-years), making it clear that for many US citizens who’re still perceived as threatening to the established power structure (or who are simply hated because of their very existence)—whether they were part of the nascent integration movements of the 1950s, the full-blown Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, or the ongoing attempts to disclaim a non-existent “post-racial” US society from the 1970s onward to today—the struggle for justice, equal treatment under the law, and respect from their neighbors (compromised at times by the crimes committed by some of the dispossessed, such as violent actions that have accompanied the nationwide Occupy movement, that work to negate acceptance of law-abiders) is a reality in a society where far too many representatives of our various branches of law enforcement have taken it upon themselves to act as if they were US marshals in the Old West, making life-or-death-decisions on the spot, often shooting first, leaving no opportunity to ask questions later.

 But don’t get me wrong here, I’m not across-the-board-anti-police—just as Ice Cube explains to a reporter in the film that he’s not anti-Semitic, it’s just that he hates a specific Jew, Jerry Heller, for purely personal reasons; please know that my late uncle, Wayland Courtney, whom I admired and respected, was a successful Ft. Worth, TX police detective for many decades so I honor good cops in any jurisdiction in this country, but there’s getting to be far too much evidence of the not-good-ones, who are just barely starting to be held accountable for their grotesque actions.  Still, as much as I support the N.W.A. decision to fight back against what they, their families, and neighbors experienced on an all-too-frequent basis—“Our art is a reflection of our reality!”—these guys in this film are depicted as almost-blameless-warriors-for-social-justice, which many in their communities may understand them to be, but even the little I know of their lyrics reflects aspects of racism against non-Blacks, misogyny toward women of their own communities, and outright rejection of a society that I (admittedly, as an older, White male who’s only spent 1 night in jail in his life and never had to kowtow to anyone just because of my physical features) want to see reformed rather than destroyed, yet these complications with what N.W.A. stood for and how they may have acted as individuals make for a more involved story than what we get here, difficult as it is to tell within the confines of a movie that the average audience member likely doesn’t want to invest 3 or more hours in.  Theirs is a rich, involved reality that this film makes a lot of progress in exploring, but as a fully-formed-presentation of this tension-filled-chapter of American history, I don’t think it’s as completely successful as it might be despite the generally strong performances by all of the principal actors and the dynamic recreation of what those heart-and-soul-pounding-concerts must have been like for performers and audiences alike.  

 I could easily be the one in the minority here, though, because, partly with the massive opening weekend domestic grosses ($60.2 million) for Straight Outta Compton, Universal Pictures has now become the studio with the fastest achievement of the $2 billion-box-office-mark within a single year (helped along by their other hits, Jurassic World [Colin Trevorrow; review in our June 17, 2015 posting], Furious 7 [James Wan; review in our April 15, 2015 posting], Minions [Pierre Coffin], Pitch Perfect 2 [Elizabeth Banks], and Fifty Shades of Grey [Sam Taylor-Johnson; review in our February 26, 2015 posting]—they also set a worldwide record, becoming the 1st studio to gross $5.53 billion in a single year [more details here if you like]).  Obviously, Straight Outta Compton is ringing true with a lot of filmgoers—with considerable respect from me as well—but I sense a little too much self-justification, a little too much propaganda overall with this film.  However, if you’d like to know more about N.W.A., here’s a major site on who they are, what they’ve done, and other things you might want to learn about or refresh yourself on concerning this powerfully-important group of social-activist-artists who strived to expose their audiences to “the strength of street knowledge.”  (Plus, you might be interested in these comments from Ava DuVernay [director of Selma (2014); review in our January 15, 2015 posting, a film more completely functional as a 4-star-experience for me] shared about her experience in watching  … Compton—overall her response’s more fully-positive than mine and more informed as she grew up in Compton when it all happened, but she’s got the advantage of having the context that I needed for the film to provide for me, hence my hesitation about 4 stars this time; again, maybe that’s my problem more than the film’s.  Thanks to long-time-friend and Blog Member Meryl Phillips-Miller for sending me to DuVernay’s link to present to you.)

 As we get into the realm of my usual Musical Metaphors to give some additional commentary/ consideration to the 2 films under review this week, I’ll start with The End of the Tour and offer The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” (a hit single in 1966, later appearing on various compilation albums: Hey Jude [1970], 1962-1966 [1973], Past Masters, Volume Two [1988], and 1 [2000; a collection of The Beatles’ #1 hit singles in the UK and/or the US]) at (I'll admit that I’ve used this one before; I try to avoid repetition as to not bore my legions of constant readers but some tunes are just too relevant to a topic to ignore); I’m not sure of the circumstances of this video, although I know it wasn’t the official one made for the song.  I considered using that version, but it’s a rather boring piece set in a garden whereas this one has a bit more energy—a relevant bit of trivia for “Paperback Writer” is that it’s the second-to-last-song (followed by Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”) played at The Beatles’ final paid concert (the impromptu-rooftop-set filmed during the production of Let It Be [Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1970] doesn’t count as an official tour date although it was the last time all 4 of them performed together in pubic) at San Francisco’s now-demolished-Candlestick Park, August 29, 1966.  (Trivia extra: Today—well, at least when I began writing all of this—August 19, 1964 marked the start of the Mop Tops’ first full-fledged-US/Canada tour, again in SF [OK, the suburb of Daly City to be exact], which I missed by a few weeks as a summer trip out west with my parents came too early, to be augmented the next year when the Fab Four came to Houston on August 19 [again], 1965, a concert my protective mother wouldn’t let me attend from our home in Galveston, 50 miles away, due to her fear for my safety from all those screaming girls suddenly throwing themselves on me as a substitute for the Liverpool Lads, I assume—how thoughtful of her to be so concerned.)  

 However, that song’s lyrics are really more about Lipsky’s desires to be as famous as David Foster Wallace, so if we need another Metaphor that speaks more directly for Wallace I’ll suggest Carly Simon’s “Legend in Your Own Time” (from the 1971 Anticipation album) at com/watch?v=C4fTT6voask, a video shot at her 1995 Live at Grand Central Station concert, an unannounced surprise for NYC commuters recorded for a Lifetime Television special (given the constant crush of people at this place I’m surprised there was room for a stageful of musicians, but from the looks of it everything went off smoothly) in that it speaks well to Wallace’s depiction as a “hero in the footlights” to the literary world where he was so celebrated although “a legend’s only a lonely boy When he goes home alone” to his 2 faithful dogs and the occasional intrusive guest.

 On the other hand, there was virtually nothing to consider within my usual realm of obscure references when choosing a Musical Metaphor for Straight Outta Compton because N.W.A. had already done the work for me with the title song from their 1988 album of the same name at com/watch?v=TMZi25P q3T8, the original music video that cuts to the heart of what the current film is exploring with the content focused on police harassment and the rappers’ refusal to tolerate or be intimidated by it.  In addition to the harsh anti-cop attitudes (well-justified by the circumstances these guys had already lived through in their young lives in the LA area) that motivate this hostile response to the environment they were so personally familiar with there are also lyrics easily offensive to the women of their own counterculture and just plenty of angry adult language in general so if you’re not already familiar with the vocalized version of “Straight Outta Compton,” I do encourage you to consider what you’re about to listen to before you dive right in.  (If you’re open to what N.W.A.’s exposing and responding to, though, you might want to delve even deeper with the song that creates such a strong negative response toward them from the law-enforcement-community in the film, especially when they ignore the warning in Detroit not to sing it, “Fuck tha Police” [sorry if you think I should have edited that first word in the title, but I get a bit tired at times of the self-censorship I impose upon my texts in order to keep the robotic Google overlords happy, especially because I highly doubt that my reviews are read by anyone who hasn’t been exposed to such “offensive” language already, so please accept that once in awhile I just state what someone else has already written without having to worry about the reasonable constraints of a “family newspaper”] at—from the same 1988 album—which is a blatant condemnation of violent police tactics against young Black men, all of whom our singers see as being treated by cops as if they’re criminals, whether they are or not.)

 However, for those of you who can stomach criticism of the various power establishments in our world but would prefer your protests to be Musically Metaphoricized in a gentler nature than what N.W.A. so aggressively dishes up I’ll conclude with The Beatles’ “Piggies” (from the 1968 The Beatles double-disc, more actively known as “The White Album”) at https://www., where the socially-dominant-upper-echelon of business, politics, and law in “their starched white shirts” are dismissed by George Harrison’s lyrics as “Clutching forks and knives to eat the bacon”; these “piggies” aren’t just the cops that are the target of much of N.W.A.’s rejection but are more the enablers who set those cops and their actions in motion in societies where “there’s something lacking,” with the message from all these tunes that the social elite and their enforcers “need a damn good whacking.”  Based on the positive critical and audience response to Straight Outta Compton so far, there seems to be a lot of agreement with that sentiment (although those whose loyalties lie with the Donald Trump wing of sociopolitical thought might prefer to do the whacking on supporters of N.W.A.—and, in breaking news, my friend and actual regular reader Roger Smitter from the Chicago area tells me the real scandal about … Compton is that the White Sox logos on the caps in the movie don’t match how they should have looked from that era!  Now that the word is out, expect box-office-receipts to drop faster than the Stock Market) That’s it for me this time, but I’ll be back soon with more reports from the wide world of current cinema.
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Here’s more information about The End of the Tour: (32:51 interview with actors Jason Segal and Jesse Eisenberg, more penetrating questions and detailed answers than in a lot of festival Q & A sessions; if you really want an in-depth exploration of the two real people that this film is about here’s a presentation on December 13, 2011 by David Lipsky talking about the late David Foster Wallace at [part 1, 34:15] and https://www. [part 2. 14:45])

Here’s more information about Straight Outta Compton: (3:41 version of the trailer with a brief intro from Ice Cube and Dr. Dre; the actual trailer is a Red Band that uses the same R-rated language as the film, so you have to sign in to verify that you’re at least 18 in order to watch it but if you’d rather watch a more sanitized version here’s one at (first 10 min. of the film; video/audio quality not so good so it’s probably pirated, but I offer it to you in hopes it will encourage you to pay for the real thing in a theater where you can appreciate how well it’s actually made rather than buying an illegal full version that looks like this; don’t support piracy but do support this film, especially given its ongoing relevance to racial chaos in our society)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.