Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Raise Your Glass to Duane Hopwood

Duane Hopwood
Written & Directed by Matt Mulhern
Running Time: 84 minutes
Originally Released: January 20, 2005 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * * ½ (out of four)

The subject of alcoholism has been broached many times in cinema, but rarely has it been tackled with the grace exhibited by Matt Mulhern’s Duane Hopwood. Mulhern’s film shines most brilliantly for what it avoids—clichés, melodrama, and inauthentic characters. Instead, Mulhern paints a picture of alcoholism that is all the more poignant because, like termites, what appears so innocuous on the surface is gradually destroying one’s foundations.

As the film begins, Duane Hopwood (David Schwimmer) is a married father of two, working as a pit boss for Ceasars Atlantic City. Late one night, Duane is pulled over on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. To make matters worse, Duane’s young daughter is sleeping on the floor in the backseat. Duane’s wife, Linda (Janeane Garofalo), who has heretofore endured Duane’s drinking habit with patience, files for divorce in an effort to protect her children. Meanwhile, Duane loses his driver’s license and is forced to bike to work for his 3 a.m. shift, the cold November weather notwithstanding.

The story doesn’t deviate much from there. Duane is just a person living his life, which feels a bit bleak at the moment. A smattering of poor decisions plagues him, many of which have nothing directly to do with alcohol. Maybe he shouldn’t have given the confrontational gambler a quarter out of his own pocket. Maybe he shouldn’t have lied to his boss about it. Maybe he shouldn’t have blown up at his ex-wife’s new boyfriend (The Office’s John Krasinski) for talking diet and exercise to Duane’s eight-year-old daughter. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so honest about his feelings for his ex-wife to the woman he has just been intimate with. The list goes on, but what makes Duane Hopwood so effectual is that, despite it all, Duane remains a wholly relatable character. He is not stupid. He is not pathetic. He is not inherently violent. As each scene unfolds, we can see ourselves behaving much as Duane does. Even his alcoholism is presented with restraint. Duane is not painted as a weak-willed individual who spends the first eight hours of his day moping and suffering from hangovers and the next eight indulging in frenzied fits of drinking. He is a competent and likable person, the kind of person you’d scarcely think had a problem if you weren’t privy to the more intimate details of his life.

As a case in point, there is one scene in which Duane attends his first AA meeting. The discussion leader asks Duane what brought him to the meeting. Duane says that both his judge and his ex-wife thought it would be wise. When the discussion leader asks pointedly if Duane himself believes he should be there, Duane hesitates. As filmgoers, we expect Duane to hesitate. What we don’t expect, and what again demonstrates Mulhern’s tact as a filmmaker, is that we too are unsure of how to answer that question. Does Duane need to seek help? Of course he does. And yet, by golly, he seems capable enough that you’d think he could do it on his own, if he really tried. That we can feel this way shows that Mulhern has tapped into something believable and real. Duane eventually tells the discussion leader that he doesn’t know if he needs AA, he just knows that he’s sad. As we have seen, it is a sadness that is pervasive, and yet largely manageable. No wonder it has proven so destructive. No wonder so many addicts, whose addictions are fueled by a sadness that is not so overbearing as it is persistent, fail to recognize that they need help.

Despite a commendable supporting cast, it is Schwimmer who gives a truly notable performance. For the first time, I’ve been able to watch Schwimmer in something other than Friends and not feel like I’m watching Ross. (And I’m including Schwimmer’s vocal performance as Melman the giraffe in Madagascar.) It says something that Schwimmer can effectively dissociate himself from his Friends persona while still playing a likable and fairly normal character. Within the subtle confines of the script, Schwimmer plays Duane as an emotionally complex human being. What makes the performance—and, admittedly, the script—so impressive is that Duane needn’t break down into tears or scream at the top of his lungs to let us know that he feels sadness or anger. He conveys his humanity as we all do, in simple and largely understated interactions with others. One such person is Duane’s casino-working friend and aspiring comic, Anthony (30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander), who eventually moves in with Duane. Anthony shares adequate screen time with Duane, but even lesser characters, such as Duane’s compassionate neighbors, Fred and Wally (Dick Cavett and Bill Buell), play their part in filling out Duane’s humanity.

In the end, the bulk of credit for Duane Hopwood’s success must again be given to writer/director Mulhern. From the opening scenes, Mulhern’s deft filmmaking skills become evident. The film begins with a montage set against the opening credits. It is via this montage that the backbone of the film is established—that Duane is a married father of two with a fondness for drinking that is not entirely under control. Most filmmakers would have, almost obligatorily, spent a good twenty to thirty minutes developing this backbone. Mulhern accomplishes as much in a mere two to three minutes. Rather than making the film feel rushed, however, Mulhern hereby demonstrates both his precision and his sensitivity as a filmmaker. He moves us right to the heart of the story, and as he does so, he respects our emotional integrity by eschewing extraneous scenes of the picture-perfect life going sour. This integrity carries over into the rest of the film; there is no emotional manipulation here. Whether Duane is expressing his love to his daughters, pleading for visitation rights from the judge, or asking for sympathy from his ex-wife, he is presented as neither too vulnerable nor too stoic. He is an adult, and he behaves like one, albeit one with a drinking problem. The error is in thinking that Duane Hopwood is only about the latter aspect of Duane's life.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Taking Woodstock Takes It That Woodstock Was Boring

Taking Woodstock

Directed by Ang Lee
Running Time: 120 minutes
Originally Released: August 28, 2009 (wide release)

* ½ (out of four)

Rolling Stone magazine deemed the iconic Woodstock Art & Music Fair of 1969 one of the 50 moments that changed the history of rock and roll. Director Ang Lee’s feature film adaptation of Elliot Tiber’s memoir Taking Woodstock assures us of this much: Woodstock was crowded and muddy. Groovy? Not so much.

In Taking Woodstock, stand-up comedian Demetri Martin plays Elliot Tiber, a young man who is at least partly responsible for bringing the now legendary Woodstock Festival to Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York. As the youngest-ever president of Bethel’s chamber of commerce, Elliot comes to the rescue of Michael Lang (played by Jonathan Graff), a concert organizer whose planned music festival in nearby Wallkill has faced severe opposition. Providing Michael the necessary permit for holding the festival in Bethel, Elliot hopes the imminent deluge of concert-goers will breathe financial life into his parents’ floundering motel.

The bulk of Taking Woodstock focuses on Elliot’s, and less directly Michael’s, struggles with the forces that oppose the festival—from the initial reluctance of Elliot’s parents to the majority of townsfolk who fear what a stampede of 100,000 hippies will do to their small town. This is the most exciting part of the film, which is sad considering that the film culminates in a voyeuristic trek through the Woodstock Festival itself. But the problem is not merely that Taking Woodstock makes Woodstock appear less than magical, it’s that the film has little momentum even getting us to the festival. Take, for instance, the main character of Elliot. If you’ve seen Demetri Martin’s low-key brand of stand-up, you can easily imagine Elliot—he’s just Demetri Martin sans comedy. The result is a character no more complex, entertaining, or engaging than the description “a nice guy” would suggest. I can’t imagine the script for Taking Woodstock described Elliot in any richer detail than that. In fact, most of the characters are on the dull side. They lack the depth of anything beyond caricature, yet unlike caricatures, they are not animated enough to entertain us, even somewhat superficially. As further evidence, Liev Schreiber as Vilma, a crossdressing former Marine, and Emile Hirsch as Billy, a paranoid Vietnam veteran, don’t add as much humor to the film as the filmmakers suppose. Even the ever-likable Eugene Levy, as dairy farmer Yasgur, feels wasted.

Conceptually speaking, the plot for Taking Woodstock is one that should easily teem with excitement, but there is no intensity here. No building fervor, no steadily-increasing energy, which you’d think would be hard to avoid given that we, the audience, know the magnitude of what’s to come. Surprisingly, the movie actually becomes progressively more boring the further into the heart of the Woodstock Festival it descends. Walking away from this film, you’ll think Woodstock was little more than an overcrowded county fair. Prolonged, split-screen montages of hippies setting up tents and eating watermelon just aren’t that exciting, especially given the film’s lackluster soundtrack. You’d think a film centered on Woodstock would implement at least a handful of beloved rock n’ roll classics. But Taking Woodstock is shockingly devoid of music, particularly of anything noteworthy (no pun intended). If filmmaker Lee aspired to celebrate sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll by recreating Woodstock for the silver screen, he has missed by a long shot. If he wasn’t aiming to celebrate Woodstock—well, the film only becomes more pointless.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Who Can Take a Sunrise, Sprinkle It with Dew?

The Mountain Dew seller, of course! And that’s what Edison recently pretended to be. He got into my multi-week supply of Mountain Dew and decided that each and every can belonged in the refrigerator. That’s a lot of cans—we typically buy a 24-pack because Wal-Mart sells them for the same price that you can get 12-packs anywhere else. That will last me quite a while, especially now that Melanie avoids drinking the stuff. It doesn’t help that we also just so happened to buy a 12-pack of Mountain Dew White Out, the only available format I’ve been able to find of the new flavor. So, now our fridge is overstocked and I look like an even-bigger lush than I really am. On the plus side, I won’t have to restock the fridge any time soon.

Here’s another photo, taken just after the Mountain Dew seller went on break. You can see just how Mountain Dew-ified our fridge has become.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Father's Day 2010

I had a very special Father’s Day this year. In the morning, Eddie and Peter (with a little help from Melanie) made me French toast, scrambled eggs, and sausage links. Melanie had even purchased orange juice, which is a rarity around here. It was quite a lavish breakfast. I felt quite pampered.

In the afternoon, I was blindfolded (at Eddie’s request) and given two wrapped gifts, one from Eddie and one from Peter. The gifts looked identical. When I opened them, I discovered two canisters of nuts—one can of almonds, and one can of cashews. The boys were very excited about giving them to me, which was super sweet. Of course, the idea came from Melanie. She said that, as far as she’s concerned, nuts are a must on Father’s Day. I agree. They do seem standard. I’m happy to be a dad who can look forward to cashews every year!

Thanks, Eddie, Peter, and Melanie! I love you!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Philosophy 101

Friday marks the end of the first six-week summer session. That means that, aside from some final grading, I’ll be done with my summer TA work in just over 24 hours. Exciting. And, get this, I’ve managed to attend all 27 class meetings thus far without wearing the same shirt twice. I’ll also be able to make it these final two days without repeating a shirt. Isn’t that nifty? And yes, I kept track of that. I figured if I didn’t, I’d be liable to wear one or two shirts over and over and over and over again, without even realizing it. So kudos to me.

In more important news (if we should call it that), I’ve enjoyed being a part of this summer class. Quite surprisingly enjoyed it, actually. It’s a basic introduction to philosophy course, and it’s being taught by another grad student, but I’ve benefitted from it. Not in terms of learning the basic concepts and positions that are held in a variety of philosophical areas, but in solidifying some of my own beliefs. Sometimes it seems like the more I’ve studied something, the less certain I’ve become about what I think about it. Somehow, though, just by reflecting on the things being discussed in this introductory class, I’ve come to see some views as more obviously correct—or, obviously more correct—than I ever have before. I know few of you give a crap, but here are some of those things:

I think the ethical notions of good and bad, right and wrong, and the like, are more intimately connected with aesthetics (beauty) than we typically suppose. This wasn’t a view discussed in the introductory course, but our class discussions got me thinking about things in a way that led me to reconsider this view. Think about it. When someone does something bad, even of seemingly little consequence or something that no one else knows about, why is it bad? Any appeal to tradition or authority (e.g. God) won’t help, because that’s just explaining why you’re convinced that the action in question is bad, not why it actually is bad. The consequences of that action? Maybe. But only if you think the action has negative consequences, and then we have to ask why those consequences are themselves bad. Another possible answer: “I don’t know why it’s bad, but I can just tell that it is bad!” That may very well be a sincere response, but I’m guessing that anyone who goes this route would, upon reflection, accept my proposal, which is this: because that action makes things—life, reality, the person himself, or whatever—less beautiful. (I use the term “beautiful” broadly, not just to refer to physical beauty.) That is, an action is bad because it diminishes or hinders beauty. Conversely, an action is good because it preserves or promotes beauty. Is it so crazy to link goodness and beauty? Why is love good? Because it’s wonderful! That is, because it’s beautiful! That is why it’s good! Isn’t that obvious enough? And why is torturing an animal for no reason whatsoever a bad thing? Because it’s ugly. It just is. And anyone who doesn’t see it as ugly is impaired, not just of a different opinion than us. Such a person doesn’t understand something about the matter, something true. That’s what I think. And so far as I can tell, the only reason to say that anything is good or right is because it adds to or preserves beauty, at least in the long run. In fact, the more I think about it, the less I can understand the notion of goodness without it being an aesthetic matter.

Philosophy of Mind
The key question in this field is: what is the relationship between the brain and the mind? Are they distinct? Are they one and the same? If they are distinct, how do they interact with each other? If they are one and the same, how do we explain the apparent difference between the physical nature of the brain and what seem to be immaterial mental items, like the first-person experience of seeing red (and not just what causes that experience), of tasting maple syrup (and not just what causes that experience), or even of imagination? Because there are mental items that are not evidently physical in nature—the Dalmatian I am imagining doesn’t occupy space-time, does it?—these mental items have traditionally been regarded as immaterial. Religious folk also tend to believe in and ultimately identify with an immaterial soul or spirit, and so we end up with people who believe that minds and souls are the same thing. In our modern era, we know the brain is vitally important to our thinking, but many people still cling to the idea that in some important sense, our minds are really our souls, and even though the brain is somehow involved, the real thinking—the first-person experience of thinking—is taking place in the immaterial mind, the soul. As such, these people may scoff at the idea that scientists could one day perform a brain scan, look at the data, and know pretty much exactly what we’re thinking. I used to think that way … but not anymore.

Here’s why. Suppose we do have souls, and suppose that our souls are our minds. Even so, where do we get our input from the world? Through the brain, quite obviously. Presumably, then, our brains are responding to the external world and our minds are then making sense of it all. And even when we think about things that aren’t actually in the external world—an imaginary Dalmatian, for example—we are certainly using our brains, what they’ve already learned and experienced, in order to represent the image of a Dalmatian to ourselves. This is not debatable. We know that when we imagine things, our brain is doing something related to that imagination process. But if our thought is necessarily linked to our physical brains, even if we grant that some important aspect of thought is delineated to a soul, then why couldn’t a scientist (in principle) decipher what my brain is doing? Put another way, if my soul depends on my brain for the content of its thoughts, and if my soul’s thoughts are therefore an apprehension of my brain states, then why couldn’t a scientist with sufficient knowledge and sophisticated enough instrumentation also deduce the content of my thoughts just by looking at my brain? The point is, the scientist would be doing exactly what I’m doing, though less directly. I don’t have to deduce what I’m thinking because it is readily apparent. The scientist would have to figure it out, but he wouldn’t be doing anything beyond what I’m doing in a more immediate way. I personally doubt that science will ever advance this far, but it only makes sense that this is theoretically possible.

Of course, I don’t readily accept the notion of immaterial souls. I believe I have a soul (or spirit, or whatever), and I believe it will survive my physical death, but I’m not comfortable saying that my soul is immaterial. At the very least, I think it is material-ish. I suspect that if we knew more about our souls, we would grant that they fall within the realm of physical existence, though perhaps it is at a level that we are far from discovering or appreciating at this point. This sets me apart from most people who subscribe to some sort of Judeo-Christian belief. I agree with those scientists and philosophers (the majority of them nowadays, I think) who find the notion of an immaterial soul preposterous. I can’t make sense of it, either. It seems to me there has to be something to our souls, if they exist, and it can’t just be thought. If it were just thought, then in what sense would I have the same soul now that I had as a baby? There’s nothing in common between my thoughts now and my thoughts then. You could argue that it’s the same soul because the thinking of my infancy and my thinking now are tied to the same physical body, albeit a physical body that has undergone massive changes over the years. But this answer isn’t satisfactory, unless you also make my physical body a part of my identity. If that’s so, then I can’t survive death, because I’ll lose my physical body then. (At least temporarily.) And what if I go into a coma and wake up with amnesia? (People do that, you know!) If my soul is immaterial thought, then it seems to me my whole soul would disappear in the wake of such a tragic accident. My immaterial thought would cease while I’m in a coma, and when I wake up, there is nothing about my amnesiac thought processes that resembles or remembers my pre-accident thought processes. So how on earth would that constitute the same soul, assuming my soul just is immaterial thought? How could we possibly make sense of the claim that it is the same immaterial thinking both before and after the accident? It doesn’t make sense! And even if we assume God will one day restore my memory in full, perhaps after my physical body dies, how would that make a difference? God’s restored version of me would just be a new soul, wouldn’t it? It would be a new thought process that was capable of simulating thought processes once had by “me” during my mortal existence. But unless that new thought process is contained in something—something physicalish—I don’t see how we can make sense of claiming it’s been the same person (“me”) the whole time—before the accident, after the accident when I have amnesia, and after I die and God restores all of my memories. Just think about it: what does God restore those memories to? No answer. He would simply be creating thoughts—creating a soul, on this misguided view. I can’t buy it. I think I’m as good as a physicalist (that is, one who denies that anything exists that is not importantly physical in nature), though there are mysteries aplenty no matter which way you go.

Holy crap if you’re still reading this. Or, rather, if you actually read everything up to this point. As much as I wish people would read and think about these things and give them some genuine consideration, I don’t expect most people to. I also realize that my views could easily be attacked as I’ve presented them here. This wasn’t mean to be a philosophical defense of my views, just a philosophical rant. These things have been on my mind, and these aren’t things I’ve always thought, so I find them interesting. I’ll stop now.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Re-Lease Me

I know, I know. I shouldn’t count my chickens before they hatch. (Unless I’m planning to make an omelet! LOL!) But this afternoon, Melanie and I signed our lease agreements for another year and I’m feeling fantastic. Once again, we get to keep our free cable and in-apartment washer and dryer, the latter of which is especially important. And, after two years of being in Tallahassee, they are only now increasing our rent, and by only $30 per month. That’s not bad at all, in my opinion. I expected our rent to increase every year, and I thought it might go up as much as $50 when it did increase. A one-time $30 increase as we go into our third year living here is nothing to complain about. Especially with the aforementioned amenities, which weren’t promised beyond our first year here. Nice.

Perhaps I’m extra giddy because we received a note on our door a few days ago telling us that our rent was going to increase by $45 per month (because sewer and water, which had previously been “complimentary,” would now cost $15 extra). The note also stated that the washer and dryer and the cable would cost $45 per month and $50 per month, respectively, if we wanted to keep either of them. We wouldn’t have kept cable, and we would’ve tried to purchase a washer and dryer rather than pay $500 per year to rent them, but that would be a steep increase in our budget overall. Well, today, when we talked to the powers that be, we were told that the note on our door had been a form letter that wasn’t entirely accurate. While rent would go up $30 per month, nothing else would change. Maybe it was all part of some elaborate ruse to make us feel better about the $30 increase, but I would feel good either way. Heck, even with the increase, we’ll be paying less than we did for a two-bedroom apartment in Atlanta, and we’re in a three-bedroom here. And here, they actually respond to maintenance requests!

So, if this is all such great news, why the fuss about counting chickens before they hatch? Well, you just never know how good things will remain. The entire staff around here has changed over the last several months, and I think they have either stopped or decreased some of the routine maintenance they used to do. They used to come in every three months and change our air filters, for example, but that hasn’t happened in quite a long time now. It makes you worry, but the newer staff seems pleasant, which is a good sign. And they’ve actually been doing more community stuff around here lately, like showing free kids’ movies in the clubhouse and having free pizza. (That was our dinner tonight!) I’m actually more worried about the immediate process of getting our lease finalized. We’ve signed the main document, but there are myriad other forms we have to give them, and sometimes the fact that our income is heavily supplemented by student loans causes headaches. There can be some extra rigmarole involved with that. But, all in all, I’m a happy man!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

A Memorable Memorial Day Weekend

Melanie, Edison, Peter, and I spent Memorial Day weekend like most Americans do—entertaining ourselves and thinking not a whit about the soldiers who have died in the service of our Country. On Saturday, we went to the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in downtown Tallahassee. Much to my ecstatic surprise, the museum was having a soft opening of its newest exhibit, Videotopia, which consists of dozens of might-as-well-call-them-vintage coin-operated video games—Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Q*bert, Pole Position II, Joust, and many, many more. I was stoked. They even had an old Atari 2600 set up that you could play, and the museum was practically empty. I was in heaven and straightaway plopped a couple of dollars into the token machine. My giddiness was dampened a bit when I couldn’t get past level two of Donkey Kong Jr., even after multiple tries, but I was overall quite the happy boy. I think a classic coin-operated video game unit would be one of very few super splurge items that I would seriously considering buying at some point in my life. Sure, I’d love a whole line of them, à la Edward Stratton III, but even one unit—the original Mario Bros., Root Beer Tapper, Dig Dug, or something along those lines—would be super awesome.

As for the rest of the museum, I was surprisingly entertained. I hadn’t expected much, so I considered it a blast. Melanie says she thinks I had more fun than anyone else in our family. That’s probably true, but this was my first visit and their second, so my enthusiasm is at least somewhat excusable.

Here are a few photos from the day:

I did better with Q*bert than with any other game, advancing to the seventh or eighth level on my first token.

Eddie stares on in awe as his father excels at a game that doesn’t even require the pressing of buttons.

Notice the warning to parents that this game is actually suitable for children of all ages. I guess the parents need to be warned that children are apt to complain about the lack of blood and guts.

Peter concentrates as he reaches the 1,000,000-point mark on the game. Either that, or he’s pooping.

Just outside the video game display was a “game” where you can throw softballs at a target and be told with what speed you hit the target. It wasn’t working too well, but Eddie and Peter both loved throwing the softballs around.

Despite this lingering paraphernalia, there is no Roswell exhibit currently at the museum. To be fair, nothing about this claims that there is such an exhibit. They just want you to tell people that you saw such an exhibit. If it brings in the people, who cares if it’s a lie?

Peter proves he is just as alien-looking as his brother.

After the museum, we went to dinner at Sonny’s, a BBQ restaurant chain. For whatever reason, I found the meal incredibly satisfying. It helped that even Edison and Peter seemed to enjoy their food immensely and downed a good bit of it. Even by the end of the meal, they weren’t getting too restless or wild, which was amazing. It was probably the best dining out experience we’ve ever had as a family. I’m ready to go again.

On Memorial Day itself, we started the day with breakfast at McDonald’s. Eddie and Peter alternated between playing on the play land equipment and eating their pancakes while I sat tight and enjoyed the first bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit I’ve had in a long time. Melanie loved it too, which is fun because breakfast from Mickey D’s is probably one of very few fast food items that she gets excited about.

After breakfast, we drove about an hour away to Panacea, Florida, where we went to the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab. It’s a fairly low-key aquarium that, as far as those things go, doesn’t cost very much. Probably because it doesn’t have very much. Still, we had fun. There were a few “touch tanks,” so Melanie and I were able to pick up crabs and encourage Edison and Peter to pet their shells (which was about as brave as they got). Other highlights included a pair of sharks that were in an open (but non-touch) tank that you could theoretically stick your hand (or your child’s face) in if you wanted to disobey the signs; the hundreds of itty-bitty fiddler crabs that scrambled in terror whenever anyone approached their pit, even if that person wasn’t yelling out “garlic butter!” as I sometimes did just to tease them; and a big empty room that I’m assuming will one day house another exhibit but which seemed to be Eddie and Peter’s favorite part of the aquarium—they liked running around in it, screaming.

And that’s about it. A very good weekend. I didn’t do any homework, really, and that was perfect. Of course, one of the best things about a long weekend is that it’s followed by a short work week. It’s already feeling too long! Ha!