January 24, 2008
In print

Before I head out for a jaunt abroad, I thought I should catch up with my last few weeks of work.

I wrote three pieces about Woody Allen. He's one of my favorite directors, so it was a pleasure to interview him on the occasion of his new film:

Has Woody Allen killed someone?

He seems awfully obsessed with the idea of murder and its guilty aftermath, after all. His new movie, Cassandra's Dream, is just the latest of his films to explore the theme. Most recently, there was his 2005 masterpiece, Match Point. Before that, 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Mr. Allen patiently explains his interest in the subject. "Crime has been a staple of playwrights and dramatists from Shakespeare to Alfred Hitchcock," the 72-year-old writer-director says by telephone. "Half the movies out all the time are about crime, because it's just a dramatic atmosphere. So I resort to it."

He sounds just a little defensive as he goes on to point out that in his directorial debut, 1969's Take the Money and Run, he played a criminal. A few years after that, in 1973's Sleeper, he notes, he was being chased as a criminal.

Finally he comes right out and says it: "I've never killed anybody."

One doubts he would have the time to cover up the crime. Mr. Allen is the most prolific American director, making about a film a year since he started four decades ago...

I reviewed that new film, Cassandra's Dream:
Woody Allen, in the last couple of decades, has often seemed like a victim of his own success.

The prolific writer-director made such great movies in the 1970s and '80s, such as Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters, that for many critics, the films that came after them seemed somehow disappointing.

With 2005's Match Point, critics finally started using the m-word again. Some complained, however, that the plot centering on a murder and its aftermath bore too much similarity to Mr. Allen's 1989 classic, Crimes and Misdemeanors.

That same objection will be raised to Cassandra's Dream...

I also wrote the On the Edge piece, asking if Woody Allen is on the Kennedy Center's blacklist:
What do you have to do to get recognized by the Kennedy Center these days?

Get your short stories published in the New Yorker and win the O. Henry Award?

Have one of the greatest stand-up comedy acts of all time?

Win three Oscars and be nominated for a total of 21 (including more best-screenplay nominations than anyone in history) as a writing-directing-acting triple threat?

Be one of the top male box-office stars (No. 8 in Quigley Publications' rankings) of the '70s?

Win a lifetime-achievement award from the Directors Guild and be one of just two people (Ingmar Bergman is the other) to win a Cannes lifetime-achievement award?

Write for some of the biggest names in early television? Appear on the cover of Life magazine?

Woody Allen has done every one of those things. Yet he continues to be passed over year after year for both the Kennedy Center Honors, which recognize a lifetime of achievement in American culture, and the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Why is he continually snubbed?

I reviewed There Will Be Blood:

There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's magnificent and strange new film, delivers on the menacing promise of its title. The early oil business was a dangerous one, and there's plenty of blood spilled here, but the real fight in this film ó a social epic that turns out to be an arresting character study ó isn't between man and man but, rather, between the dueling impulses in a single man's heart...

Mr. Anderson's meticulously crafted film can only be compared to Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk in its ambition...

I talked to Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Principal Pops Conductor Jack Everly about music and the movies:

A pairing of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and science-fiction film might seem a little out of this world. It turns out, though, that one of the country's top pops conductors might not have pursued a career as a musician if not for the unearthly genre.

BSO Principal Pops Conductor Jack Everly says he's been "terrified and fascinated" by the sci-fi genre since he saw the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still as a child.

"Aside from that marvelous story and screenplay and the fact it was so brilliantly directed by Robert Wise, what really stuck in my memory was the music by Bernard Herrmann. It's incredibly evocative. It's a subliminal effect it has on you," the maestro says. "His style of composition is definitely unique. He gets under the surface of what it is he's writing the music for."

Mr. Everly says it's one of the things that inspired him to become a conductor...

I interviewed the writer and the director of The Orphanage:

The story behind The Orphanage (El Orfanato) is almost as interesting as the haunting tale the film tells.

The Spanish psychological horror film, which opens in District theaters today, is the first film to be "presented by" Guillermo del Toro. The Mexican director made one of last year's most acclaimed films, the visually extraordinary adult fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth, in Spain and is a hot commodity in Hollywood.

Just how did a first-time director and a first-time screenwriter get Mr. del Toro's name ó and the attention that comes with it ó on their film?

After the Britney Spears ambulance drama, I wrote an On the Edge column suggesting that it's only a matter of time before the highly-paid stalkers called paparazzi maim or kill someone:

The term "ambulance chaser" was coined to scorn that profession seen as the lowest of the low ó the unsavory trial lawyer who trolls for business from vulnerable accident victims. I suggest a new use for the word, however, to describe members of a profession that now has unscrupulous attorneys beat in terms of trying to profit from other people's misfortunes ó the paparazzi...

I reviewed Francis Ford Coppola's new film, Youth Without Youth:

Pity poor Francis Ford Coppola.

Few complain anymore that David Lynch's films are incoherent or inexplicable. However, the director of such cinematic classics as The Godfather and The Conversation doesn't have the luxury of being too experimental, if early reviews of Youth Without Youth are any indication.

Critics have said just those things about Mr. Coppola's first film in a decade. They grumble that the movie is too unfocused, tackling too many big subjects, without making much sense in the process.

But you shouldn't go into this film, based on a meandering novella by Romanian religion and philosophy scholar Mircea Eliade, expecting a straight-across narrative as in, say, Mr. Coppola's adaptations of Bram Stoker's Dracula and John Grisham's The Rainmaker.

The problem with Youth Without Youth isn't that Mr. Coppola is overreaching. It's that, in exploring the nature of time, consciousness and love, he's forgotten that his greatest talent lies in telling a gripping story...

I reviewed the first installment of the new Jane Austen series on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre.

I also wrote two and a half of the last three Media Room DVD columns. In the first, I take a look at Zodiac:

Zodiac, a very thorough film about the real-life "Zodiac Killer" who terrified Californians in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has appeared on a number of film critics' top 10 lists. When it came out last spring, though, more than a few reviewers complained about its long running time. But it seems that even 2 hours and 38 minutes wasn't enough for director David Fincher. Zodiac: 2-Disc Director's Cut (Paramount, $36.99 for DVD, $39.99 for HD DVD) hits stores next week with a new cut of the film that's four minutes longer...
In the last, I take a look at Moliere and the Star Wars episode of Family Guy:
Moliere (Sony, $29.95) was one of 2007's overlooked gems. Out on DVD next week, the French film seems even better on a second viewing.

It's a frothy comedy in the vein of "Shakespeare in Love" and "Becoming Jane," but much more insightful than either of those films on how artistic genius transforms life into art...

January 14, 2008
Lee Siegel: Not Sorry

Lee Siegel is unrepentant about posting praise of himself in comments on his New Republic blog under a pseudonym. "I just wish people would get over the whole thing. I donít think itís really that big a deal," he tells New York magazine. "I didnít use Internet anonymity to pursue a secret agenda, I used it to protest anonymity, and no one wants to concede that to me. I did it as a prank, and a provocation, strictly out of exasperation." One wonders how an act manages to be a protest when the rebel doesn't want anyone to know he's performing it.

New York interviewer Boris Kachka notes that in his new book, Siegel spends a lot of time "attacking other writers." That's no surprise. But memo to Lee Siegel: If you want to publish an angry rant against a learned writer, as you did recently in The New York Times Book Review, it helps if you yourself know how to spell The Waste Land.

It seems like the fact checkers in the literary section of the Times are on vacation these days. In a piece on historical artifacts, James Gleick writes that in Philip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle, "a dealer in antiquities holds up two identical Zippo lighters, one of which supposedly belonged to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and says: 'One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object has ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it? ... You can't. You canít tell which is which. There's no Ďmystical plasmic presence,' no 'aura' around it.'" But it wasn't the dealer that made that comment -- It was Wyndham-Matson, a man whose company produces fake artifacts. The difference is rather important. Then there was this list of corrections to a Rachel Donadio piece on J.M. Coetzee, which provoked a lot of letters. There are obviously no Eliot fans at the Book Review -- before that Waste Land error, no one caught the rather glaring mistake Donadio made of calling him a Catholic convert.