I visited New York City this past week and was able to squeeze in my three favorite experiences there: going to a game at Yankee Stadium, doing something weird by accident, and seeing a movie I can’t find back in North Carolina. (Actual culture is wasted on me.)
The Yankees game went well — a 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
The accidental weirdness didn’t disappoint, either. On Thursday, my friend sent me this invitation by text message: “headed to the west village to watch girls protest something by riding around in short skirts.” I tried to restrict myself to a very fast walk to meet him.
It turned out a Dutch woman had been stopped by an NYPD officer for allegedly distracting drivers by biking in a short skirt, which sparked the protest ride. Coincidentally (or not), the woman was also a general manager at a bike company and very comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. The whole thing reeked of a calculated marketing stunt, albeit with a wonderful poster. It attracted about 50 people, but since only a few of the female protesters actually wore short skirts and some guys showed up in dresses, the actual message must have been totally confusing for an outside observer. Meanwhile, the bikers had to focus on avoiding a massive pile-up amid a lot of angry drivers. My weirdness quota was filled.
The movie experience, on the other hand, was a total failure. I was supposed to see a comedy, but I mixed up my show times and ended up with just one choice at the theater: a Romanian film called Aurora. Some might think that short description alone should have raised a red flag, but I chose to buy a ticket based on two factors:
1. The poster made it look like a cool sepia-toned noirish crime thriller.
2. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called it “a slow-burning tour de force.”
But I forgot one of my main moviegoing rules: If a movie comes from a country without a long film tradition, never, ever see it unless a trusted source has given the stamp of approval. Otherwise, there’s a real danger that the final product will be self-indulgent, full of aimless “symbols,” and achingly dull.
And good god, did Aurora fit the bill. It was three hours long, though I lasted just 50 minutes. In that time, there were fewer than 100 words of dialogue. The lead character (the director cast himself, honoring a long-standing tradition of narcissistic snooze-fests) spent the first half hour working at a factory and hiding behind trucks in a decaying urban landscape — for a visual equivalent, picture an overflowing trash can at a filthy bus station — before examining his testicles in the shower for a full five minutes (how artistic! Male nudity!) and then suffering a meaningless visit from his parents. After that, I think he sat in a car and smoked. That almost took us to the hour mark.
Fuming in my seat, I passed a breaking point. Even if the rest of the movie was a breathtaking work of genius, it could never atone for the horrible beginning. I spent a moment regretting the $13 I wasted on a ticket, gave a few loud sighs to take the temperature of the room, and stalked out. I've still barely recovered from that anger, which is why I'm ranting about a movie most Americans will never see.
Here’s my real problem: With foreign films of that ilk, you can’t even rely on the critics. When I checked later, five out of eight reviewers gave “Aurora” a ripe tomato. Here’s what they had to say:
“An endurance test” — The House Next Door
“Total frustration” — Village Voice
“Challenging” — New York Post
“A difficult three-hour sprawl” — The A.V. Club
Sounds awful, right? And those were the positive reviews! The negative ones rightly blasted the director, Cristi Puiu. But why do some critics seem to feel this odd compulsion to make excuses for bad foreign films? Did they actually like it? At the risk of mind reading, I'd say no, since they all called it boring in roundabout ways. (Review translator: “So dull I wanted to murder the director, but not so dull that I want to sacrifice my sophisticated posturing.”)
Instead of being honest, they trot out a litany of excuses and write them in academic gibberish: “Less a psychological case study than a philosophical treatise” and “Mr. Puiu thwarts narrative expectations … including psychological explanation for what happens” and “visually suggests the suffocating structures of … life” and “the flatness is part of the point.”
Throw in a comparison to a legitimately great foreign film of the past (L’Avventura, in the Village Voice’s case), and presto! A critic has made chicken salad out of chicken scratch. Which, sadly, makes it even harder for the truly great foreign films to ever prosper in America.
I tried sending Dargis a bill for my ticket, but she just wrote back, calling the invoice a "compelling, subversive work of postmodern literary malaise."
On to the sports!
- Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in four sets for his first Wimbledon title. In celebration, Djokovic tasted a few blades of grass from the surface of Centre Court. While most spectators laughed in surprise, the Welshmen in the crowd sized him up for a proper shearing.
- The U.S. topped Colombia 3-0 to advance to the quarterfinals in the Women's World Cup. To honor the U.S. troops in attendance, Megan Rapinoe found a television microphone and sang "Born in the U.S.A." after scoring the team's second goal. The troops were ambivalent. "Yeah, the song was fine," said a military spokesman, "but we were hoping for something a bit more … how can I put this delicately … Chastain-y."
- The MLB All-Star game starters have been announced, with Jose Bautista leading all major leaguers with a record 7,454,753 votes. Just two years ago, he received almost no votes. Is it just every sports writer in America, or is that inflation a little suspicious?
- The New York Yankees led the American League with four starters, while the Milwaukee Brewers placed three on the National League squad. The Yankees have won 27 World Championships, while the Brewers are excited about rumors that their grounds crew might erect a picket fence to keep local teens from driving their pickup trucks on the field at night.
- As usual, there were several significant All-Star snubs. Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen, second in the NL in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), was foremost among them. When asked if he neglected to take WAR into account when making his selections, average fan voter Mel D'Angelo of Camden, N.J., grabbed his crotch and grunted.
- Ukrainian boxer Wladimir Klitschko defeated David Haye by a lopsided decision to win the WBA heavyweight title Saturday. Haye, whose trash-talking made news in the lead-up to the fight, blamed his performance on a broken toe. If the toe was healthy, he said, he would have run away almost immediately.
- The Boston Red Sox swept the Houston Astros, winning Sunday's game on a bases-loaded, ninth-inning walk. When asked about the embarrassing loss at the press conference, Astros manager Brad Mills brightened, cleared his throat, and screamed out, "Houston, we have a problem!" He proceeded to laugh uproariously at his own joke, stumble off the stage and collapse into a pack of photographers. After a brief silence, he took a reporter's glass of water and walked out of the room weeping.
- In the battle for Ohio, the Cincinnati Reds salvaged a win Sunday after dropping their first two games to Cleveland. Edgar Renteria hit the critical home run, though teammates said it doesn't make up for his annoying habit of telling endless Tim Lincecum anecdotes at team meals.
- The Mets forced a rare blown save by Mariano Rivera on the way to avoiding a sweep against the Yankees on Sunday. On Friday, A-Rod raised eyebrows in the city when he called Jose Reyes "the world's greatest player playing shortstop" and "the most exciting." He later clarified, explaining that "Jose Reyes" is the name he gave years ago to his own reflection in the mirror. "Is someone else named Jose Reyes?" he asked.
- Roy Halladay overpowered the Blue Jays with his sixth complete game, a number that eclipses the total of all but three teams in baseball. However, it's impossible for him to accumulate more complete games than his own team, the Phillies, a mathematical fact that's slowly driving him insane.
- In NASCAR news, ole Dale Jr. sure ain't takin' much of a cotton to them new restrictor plate vee-hickles. No siree, it's just plumb wrong, iffen you ask him. Why hell, what with all the damned draftin' these days, you'd think you was at a KAN-tuckee wind circus just a'pinin' fer blue ribbons!