Saturday, July 12, 2008

Disappointments and Happy Endings

Last week, I may have implied that I spent the July 4th holiday on the moon. So just to clear up any possible misunderstandings, I didn't actually go to the moon. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever been to the moon. The truth is, I mostly spent that whole week and the week that followed within the confines of my house, except for a brief excursion to the emergency room.

I didn't have an actual medical emergency -- I wasn't suffocating or bleeding to death, for example -- but I was barely able to move due to all the excruciating pain I was suffering from.

Here's the short to medium-length version of what happened: Sometime in the early '90s, I herniated a few discs in my lower back, causing the vertebrae to pinch various nerves, including the sciatic nerve. It didn't happen all at once -- it happened over the course of a few years, during which I spent a fair amount of time in and out of physical therapy. I'm mostly pain-free these days, except that every now and then (such as during the recent July 4th holiday, for example), my back will give out on me, sometimes without any warning. Usually it gets better on its own, but this time it only got worse. I tried making an appointment with my orthopedist, but he was booked solid until the end of July, so I got in the car and drove to the emergency room.

Driving wasn't a problem for me, but getting in and out of the car was a challenge. Nonetheless, I made it to the emergency room, and waited for over two hours to see a doctor. He looked pretty young -- I figure he probably wasn't even in high school when I first injured my back -- but although he wasn't an orthopedist, he seemed to know what he was talking about. Before he left, he wrote me a couple of prescriptions -- one for Ibuprofen, which is an anti-inflammatory, and one for Vicodin, which is a pain killer.

Vicodin is also a narcotic, and it's one of those drugs that rich and famous people are always getting addicted to. For the life of me, I don't know why -- it seemed like all it did to me was make me drowsy, without killing any actual pain. So I don't really see the appeal, but maybe I would have liked it more if I were rich and famous.

Anyway, that's not really what I wanted to write about. If you're ever confined to your house and in too much pain to do any actual thinking, you'll probably end up watching a lot of TV. Or at least, that's what I did. Actually, I didn't watch that much -- just enough to remind me why I don't normally watch a lot of TV. I did end up seeing a few movies on cable, though, and a few more movies on my computer.

I'm not going to mention them all because I don't remember them all. I'm just going to mention one for starters and see where that leads me. The movie is Happy Endings. I downloaded this movie, and sometimes when I download a movie, I'll burn it to a DVD so I can watch in on my TV, and other times I'll just watch it on my computer. If it's a long movie (such as the director's cut of Bis ans Ende der Welt, for example), I'll usually burn it to a DVD (or in the case of Bis ans Ende der Welt, two DVDs). My reasoning is that it's more comfortable to watch a movie on my couch looking at a TV screen than on a chair looking at a computer monitor, but in this case, the comfort issue wasn't that important, since you're never all that comfortable when you've got severe back pain.

But anyway, back to Happy Endings, which I watched on my computer even though it was well over two hours long. After a few minutes it started to remind me of the movie The Opposite of Sex, and not just because Lisa Kudrow played the same sort of frustrated pathetic woman in both movies, or that both movies wove several stories into one, or that some of the plot developments were just too absurd to be believable, but because they both had the same basic tone, which was cynical and sarcastic yet still warm-hearted and optimistic somehow. So when Happy Endings was over, I looked it up online and discovered that it was written and directed by Don Roos, the same guy who did The Opposite of Sex. I can't say I was surprised -- as a matter of fact, I probably would have been a lot more surprised if they hadn't been made by the same guy. I think Happy Endings is a pretty good movie, as is The Opposite of Sex. It can't take away the intense pain of severe inflammation in the lower back, but no movie really can.

The only other movie I want to say anything about is Redbelt, David Mamet's latest movie. I saw this movie the week before my recent back problems began, so I saw in the theater. It was hard to find a theater that still played this movie, since it wasn't very well received by either audiences or critics.

It's not Mamet's best movie by far, but it's still worth seeing. It's nowhere near as good as The Spanish Prisoner, Heist, or State and Main, but I still liked it. I don't know why, but for some reason, Mamet sometimes likes his actors to pretend they can't act. If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch Lindsay Crouse in House of Cards, or Campbell Scott in The Spanish Prisoner. It's an odd directorial style, but it's part of what gives his movies their unique charm.

There was no deliberately bad acting in Redbelt, but the plot was somewhat ridiculous and some of the characters did things that people in their position would never do, but Mamet probably knows this and he makes them do it anyway. For the viewer, it's sometimes frustrating, but if you can suspend your disbelief, you'll usually end up enjoying yourself, and I'm sure that when Redbelt starts getting shown on cable, I'll watch it a few times, just like I've done with just about every other Mamet film I've seen.

By the way, a few months ago, David Mamet wrote an essay on why he isn't a brain-dead liberal. I read it, and it was sort of frustrating to read -- in the same way his movies can be frustrating to watch -- but the big disappointment for me was that he never really explained why he isn't a brain-dead liberal.

Anyway, you may have noticed that before last week's post, I let two weeks go by without writing anything. That's partially because I had better things to do, and partially because there wasn't anything I was really interested in writing about. I briefly considered writing about Redbelt and the brain-dead essay, but I didn't care enough about either of them to devote an entire post to.

I was also thinking about writing about the fact that some of my favorite filmmakers seem to be devoting their skills to making movies that are impossible to watch. I'm not talking about Mamet-style frustrating movies, I'm talking about people like Peter Greenaway and David Lynch.

Greenaway probably hasn't made anything really worth watching since The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover. That never stops me from seeing anything he makes that gets released in this country, but I'm usually disappointed. Try sitting through 8½ Women and you'll see what I mean. So maybe it's just as well that most of the films he makes never get released here. Nonetheless, I always wanted to see The Baby of M√Ęcon, even though I don't think it ever got a single good review. I think it played in the United States for one day at one theater, so I never got the chance to see it, and like a lot of other Greenaway films, no NTSC Region 1 DVD was ever released. But somebody posted a copy of it online recently, and although the video quality wasn't very good, I decided to watch it anyway. To be fair, it wasn't half-bad. As a matter of fact, I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, which is a strong testament to the power of low expectations.

I also always wanted to see everything in Greenaway's The Tulse Luper Suitcases series, but as far as I know, those films were never released in the United States. If an NTSC Region 1 DVD collection had been made, I probably would have bought it, mostly out of curiosity, but as far as I know, that never happened. However, the Sundance Channel showed The Tulse Luper Suitcases 2 last week, and I saw some of it. I don't know exactly how much I saw because I fell asleep while watching it. That isn't necessarily an indictment of The Tulse Luper Suitcases 2, however, since it was shown late at night and I may have just had some Vicodin, but what I did see didn't make me particularly eager to see the rest. It wasn't painful to watch -- it was just sort of remote and uninteresting. Well, it was interesting from a purely cinematic standpoint, I suppose, but it wasn't very involving, which was probably deliberate. But deliberate or not, it didn't hold my attention, which is a shame, because Greenaway is capable of so much more.

The same thing is true with David Lynch. I've written about him before, so I won't repeat myself here. I just wonder if it's possible for him to make a movie even worse than Inland Empire. He's a director of considerable talent, so if anyone can do it, he can, but let's just hope that he decides not to.

So after being disappointed by some of my favorite filmmakers, I'm glad there are people like Todd Solondz. Or more specifically, I'm glad there is Todd Solondz. I've only seen four of his movies, but he's only made five features and one short film, so I've seen the bulk of his work and I've never seen a movie of his that I didn't like. I wasn't all that wild about Storytelling, but after I saw it in the theater, I still decided to watch it a couple of times when it went to cable. His most recent movie, Palindromes, seems to have pinched a few nerves, however, at least judging from the love-it-or-hate-it reviews it got. You can read the external reviews at IMDb if you want, but it's a lot more fun to read the user comments, especially the negative ones. As you read them, count the number of times people use words like "perverse," "offensive," "sick," and "horrible."

So that about wraps it up for this week. And if you're wondering how my back is doing, it's a lot better, thank you. I still don't have full range of motion and I'm still in occasional pain, but it's getting a little better every day, so the next time you hear from me, I'll probably be fine.