The Junk Food of Writing

Monday, October 30, 2006

Dull "Scissors" needs sharpening

Dysfunctional casts of characters are not rare in contemporary cinema. Unfortunately, many recent releases have neither improved upon the paradigm nor been subversive enough to experiment with the already exhausted conventions. Running with Scissors continues this streak of weak poseurs.

After Running with Scissors, Annette Bening wisely undergoes career counseling.

As an eccentric ensemble piece, it is missing the absurdist comedy of I Heart Huckabee’s and the peculiar pathos of The Royal Tenenbaums. This dull result is even more depressing when considering how fey and colorful Augusten Burrough’s memoirs, from which the film is based, are. Ultimately, the filmmakers accomplish one ostensibly infeasible task: they render Augusten Burroughs’ life unremarkable.

The film opens with a voiceover identifying itself, “My name is Augusten Burroughs.” A teenage Augusten (Joseph Cross) concludes this brief introduction by noting, “I guess it doesn’t really matter where I begin because no one is going to believe me, anyway.” It is not the strange events that occur, however, that makes this production unbelievable; it’s the way the filmmakers have taken candid accounts and neatly packaged them for easy digestion that strains this toothless film’s plausibility.

Running with Scissors
revolves around Augusten Burroughs—a sensitive, aptly angst-ridden teenager whose upbringing was hardly conventional. He can thank his mother, Deirdre Burroughs (Annette Bening, taking full advantage of her character’s psychosis), for such a tumultuous childhood.

Deirdre, a vastly unstable and acerbic narcissist with delusions of grandeur, divorces her husband and selfishly decides that her quirky psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox, who is usually fantastic but is merely serviceable here), should adopt Augusten so she can concentrate on her emotions and writing. Dr. Finch has two odd daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Gwyneth Paltrow, trying hard to give dimension to their one-note characters and failing) and an adopted, perilous thirtysomething son (Joseph Fiennes). Thus begins Augusten’s wayward trip through life and his struggle to cope with uncontrollable events.

The director of
Running with Scissors, Ryan Murphy, has previously worked in television – he is credited as creator of the provocative FX series with slicing and dicing, “Nip/Tuck” and the teen cult (yet hardly classic) show, “Popular.” Perhaps that’s why, after moving to a new medium, the film is so jarringly episodic and lacking in cohesion. It lumps along from one scene to the next, pointing out another bizarre, yet candy-coated, vignette from Augusten’s memoirs.

Augusten whines from scene to scene, consistently complaining about living an abnormal existence, yet the film is not bold enough to justify his complaints. Even the spontaneous relationship between Augusten and a 32 year old male – the aforementioned adopted son of Dr. Finch – does not seem self-destructive and there are hardly any visibly negative affects. By the end, it’s downright tiresome. At least the devoted cast attempts to bring the film to a higher level.

Augusten isn’t annoying though – he is, oddly, not given enough material to be. Despite being the centerpiece, he’s simply drab. It’s difficult to blame actor Joseph Cross when the film’s script obviously has a bias towards Bening’s scene-stealing histrionics.

The stabs at whimsical humor mostly fall flat, and an attempt to inject heart into the production through three scenes with a subtext-exposing Mrs. Finch (Jill Clayburgh), are awkwardly placed. These scenes augment the film’s unevenness and tonal confusion. Therefore, it’s neither an effective idiosyncratic comedy nor a touching reflection on a teenage life and apprehension towards the future.

In an interview with Joseph Cross, he said that he identified with Augusten’s “loneliness amidst a chaotic atmosphere,” and the film does try to convey a theme of oppression, yet ultimately results in a scene of baffling optimism.

The narrative rolls out over the 70’s, and Murphy tries his best to capture this time period. His best, which consists of spending a large percentage of film’s budget on song rights, is not enough. Ryan Murphy doesn’t have the flair for 70’s kitsch; he mistakes a loaded soundtrack (including Elton John and Crosby, Stills & Nash) for earned retro status.

There’s a catchphrase that Deirdre uses in her writing workshop: “get the rage on the page.” A similarly rhyming phrase was probably uttered during a meeting of producers: “make it lean and put it on the screen.”

The title is very appropriate, since scissors were, apparently, heavily involved in the production. The adapters used scissors to snip out the bizarre nature of life, making every scene seem more like forced plot advancement than a capricious twist in Augusten’s journey. Somewhere along the line, someone tripped while running with scissors and accidentally castrated the production. Despite a mostly adept cast—including a diva-licious performance by Annette Bening—Running with Scissors has less balls than a Ken doll.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

I saw a film today, oh boy.

Actually, that's a lie; but if you lo0ok to your right, you will see that I have been watching movies despite completely neglecting my blog

Some may call my journal a child of sorts -- and if Marie Antoinette and Little Children have taught me much, it's that neglectful parenting is chic once again. Truffaut would have been so proud.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

With deep “Corteo,” Cirque De Soleil doesn’t clown around

In a brief scene within Cirque de Soleil’s Boston presentation of Corteo, an angel attempts to patiently teach the clown protagonist (Mauro Mozzani) how to fly. He is donned with makeshift wings and after a few gleeful moments of flight, he suddenly plunges towards the ground. The clown stabilizes only four feet above the stage and, after some flustered hesitation, flies back up to try again.

This cyclical pattern of ups and downs mirrors the structure of Corteo and, more broadly, life itself. Cirque de Soleil – Corteo is, essentially, an abstract examination of the bittersweet experience of being – dazzlingly documenting its jubilant highs and harsh lows.

Mauro Mozzani, steering the show as the nameless lead clown, seems to believe that the bitter tragedies of existence outweigh the mirth, since the play opens with him contemplating suicide. The non-linear narrative begins with Mozzani envisioning his well-attended funeral – “corteo” is an Italian term which translates into “procession.” The subsequent vignettes are a loose collection of symbolic, nostalgic introspections upon his past.

Despite the omnipresence of angels, this reflection upon a clown’s life is, thankfully, much more similar to Bob Fosse’s conceptual and insightful All That Jazz than Frank Capra’s schmaltzy It’s a Wonderful Life.

In an exuberant scene of adolescent tomfoolery, a handful of younger actors recreate a memory of pillow-fighting and bed-jumping. The pillows fly fast and the cast flips high in the air. The trampolines, which are artfully disguised in the beds, give the acrobats the height to perform their fantastic feats. The scene works twofold, as most do; it is an aesthetic wonder and it also captures the essence of childhood: unbridled joy.

The key tableau in Corteo, however, occurs near the middle; colorful, manic characters become uncontrollable with ecstasy until the ringmaster forcefully reminds them that they are attending a funeral. This prompts them to pause and invert their gleeful smiles. This most exposes the subtext of Corteo – in life, melancholy is penetrated by bliss, but bliss is ultimately punctuated with melancholy. The poignant and brilliantly staged finale proves that death does not always have to be morose, though.

is quite a technical achievement, but since every stunt is performed seamlessly, it appears to be pure magic that runs the show. Beds, bicycles, angels and clowns casually soar high over the stage. Shoes scurry across the floor without a human inhabiting them. Contortionists dangle from chandeliers raised fifty feet above the ground. There’s even a precious dwarf who acts as a human beach-ball.

is as well balanced as a tight rope walker. Not only is it an amalgam of choreography, gymnastics and slapstick comedy, but it is also a luminous and musical triumph.

There is much to feast your eyes and ears on simultaneously. Fortunately, the dexterous lighting acts as a guide for the wandering, hypnotized eye. Whatever you choose to focus on, your mouth is guaranteed to be gapping the whole time.

The multicultural mix of melodies perfectly complements Corteo’s multitude of diverse scenarios. The mid-song pauses are also equally effective – it’s the brief absence of sound that creates more palpable tension during breathtaking routines.

The visuals and music will astound throughout, but it is Corteo’s profound meaning that will resonate. Perhaps the dizzy feeling one may feel during the production is not simply due to its mesmerizing eye candy, but also the deep and empathetic observations it makes on someone else’s life. As Mozzani encounters people in his dream world, he often recognizes them as past acquaintances and shares a cathartic reunion with them. Although Corteo is an epic production, it’s delicately nuanced.

Cirque de Soleil is currently performing Corteo in the majestic blue and yellow big-top tent constructed in the parking lot of Suffolk Downs in East Boston. The creators, cast and crew deftly balance the inspired lunacy of the circus with the solemnity of the opera and the grace of ballet.

The whole event is spectacularly surreal and reminiscent of what a stage adaptation of a Federico Fellini film may resemble. Therefore, it is unsurprising that it bears such close similarity to Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece, 8 ½, which is a rumination on artistic frustration and a director’s life. As the anarchic, clown-filled denouement of that film suggests: life is a circus. The talents behind Corteo definitely agree.